AdobeStock / Leo Wolfert

Legal framework – robots as ‘electronic persons’

The prospect that AI will be used more and more in sensitive applications raises not only the question of control but also the issue of an adequate legal framework. The interpretation and application of existing law to such situations is often fraught with uncertainty. There is hardly any case law to which reference could be made. Legal terms such as legal personality, responsibility and liability no longer seem to fit here.1

The European Parliament has already dealt with the issue of the legal nature of autonomous robots in its resolution ‘Civil Law Rules on Robotics’. It called on the Commission to examine the impact of creating a specific legal status for robots as ‘electronic persons’, including robots that make independent decisions or otherwise interact independently with third parties.2

If there were to be an electronic person in that sense, the question arises as to who is responsible for their actions and who is liable if they cause damage. In its resolution ‘A comprehensive European industrial policy on artificial intelligence and robotics’, the European Parliament called on the Commission to monitor developments in the use of AI. If necessary, changes to the legal framework will be proposed to clarify the division of liability between those who use the robots/AI systems (e.g. doctors), those who make them, and the medical facility providing the treatment.3 The underlying concern is that users, without taking into account their own professional judgement, would agree with the diagnosis or treatment proposed by AI, because they would otherwise fear being made liable.

One possible  solution, according to the European Parliament, is to set up a compulsory insurance scheme. Similar to the system for motor vehicles, manufacturers or owners of robots would be obliged to take out insurance against damage caused by their robots. This could be supplemented by a compensation fund for damage caused by a robot which is not covered by insurance. It would also be conceivable to have a system of limiting the liability of the manufacturer, the programmer, the owner or the user if they contribute to this fund.4

The European Commission wants to investigate whether further amendments to the existing legislation are necessary, e.g. in the area of data protection which will not be discussed here, and intends to submit a report by the middle of the year.5