Can You Sue a Robot?

You wouldn’t kick a real dog, but how about a robot dog? It’s not an actual living creature, so what’s the harm? Boston Dynamics, a market leader in robotics, routinely “Abuses” its animal-like creations in an effort to make them more robust. After all, military applications for their devices abound. On the battlefield, getting shoved around – and worse – would be inevitable.

In fact, there is a YouTube video of this tough-love testing and it has over 2 million views. Despite knowing full well these are just machines, it is hard not to cringe. If you want to take a look, here it is:

We bring this up because it is just one example of how difficult it will be to write laws around robotics, especially machines that closely resemble human or animal forms. Empathy is hard wired into the human psyche. But “Protecting” a robot’s “rights” also means making them accountable for their actions. And that’s where things get complicated…

No surprise, but the European Union is out in front on considering “Robot rights”. Just as the EU leads the world on issues like personal online privacy and how much power Google/Amazon/Facebook can exert on local merchants, it makes sense they would be considering this point as well. The basic idea would grant special legal status for “Electronic persons”, essentially covering highly advanced autonomous robots with sophisticated artificial intelligence capable of rudimentary learning.

Surprisingly, a raft of technologists hates the idea and wrote the EU Commission a letter to that effect. Essentially, they believe manufacturers would use “Electronic personhood” as a way to limit their liability for creating a product that later went awry. The problem is not new to their thinking. Car companies are still liable for their products’ safety, even as humans have to buy insurance as well. Personhood might leave all the liability with the owner of the device.

This is a mind-numbingly confusing topic, but it is important. The path from developing AI robots to getting them into the real world must pass through a regulatory framework. The European Union is out in front on this topic, and with few Tech giants in their backyard they may be the fairest global arbiters of how to proceed.

If you want to read more:

Politico broke the story about the science community’s pushback to the EU regulations:

And Gizmodo has a well-written analysis as well: