Researcher at Institute for State and Law, Alžběta Krausová, on legal aspects of robots and AI

Illustrative photo: geralt / Pixabay, CC0

Earlier this year, the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee caused something of a stir with a resolution aiming to grant robots legal status in order to hold them ‘responsible for acts or omissions’. The move caught some off guard in what is quite complex or even uncharted legal territory. Alžběta Krausová, a well-known researcher at the Institute for State and Law at the Czech Academy of Sciences specialising in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence is one who has followed the conversation closely as well as added to it. She explains that even though it seems like early days, changes are coming so rapidly in robotics and AI that we have to prepare a proper legal framework well in advance.

Alžběta Krausová,  photo: LinkedIn of Alžběta Krausová
“In short, the law is very rigid. It takes a long time for laws to be changed, and for society to react to changes. So now, it may seem very early due to the state of robotics and the fact that we don’t have robots that truly feel or have consciousness (and it is debatable whether they will ever attain it). But the term ‘electronic person’ aims at something else. It is not to recognize a robot or a humanoid robot or some form of artificial intelligence as something close to us, to give it the same rights such as the right to life, the right to a language, the right to privacy and so on. It is a construct, like the term ‘legal person’.

“Legal person is an artificial concept of our society. We created the concept of a legal person and applied it to companies because we needed something that transcended humans. With electronic persons or robots, there are similarities and differences. Imagine a robot who is buying pills for you or other items to help care for elderly people. We need rules that make it so it is actually legal for the robot to purchase the items.

“Also, the other big problem is liability. What happens if a robot causes a liability? So, this status of an electronic person is not about making robots humans, but laying down rules on what to do when a robot causes damage.”

This is perhaps similar: we’re already looking at all of the problems surrounding drones. When you have things like no-fly zones, who can operate them where, and if you don’t have these definitions in place, it becomes chaos.

“With drones, even though there still much debate, we still presume that the one who is in control of the drone is the one who is legally responsible if anything goes wrong. However, with robots that are equipped with artificial intelligence, it is very difficult to determine who bears ultimate responsibility due to the fact that the robot is learning all of the time.

Photo: Eva Kriegerova,  Plzeň 2015 /
“You have a manufacturer who makes it and programs it and may have somebody teach it basic information, and then the robot is in contact with other people and society. If the robot causes any damage, it is very hard to prove who is responsible.

“The manufacturer will say that it is the person who initially instructed the robot poorly, and the person may say it is a fault in the programming or construction that caused to robot to inflict harm. So, we need clear rules on how to deal with that, and an electronic person is one of the possible solutions.”

We’ve been talking about the necessity for a legal framework on how to define these products at this point, whether they are robots, autonomous cars, and other devices that use some form of weak or narrow AI. Another aspect of it is whether or not there will be major advances in general artificial intelligence. Different programmers, people who are involved in various AI projects also give different answers. Many of them have their feet firmly on the ground and are convinced that a giant breakthrough in AI is ay best several hundred years away, if not impossible. Then you have people, well-known names in the scientific community, who say that artificial intelligence could one day be a huge threat and that we are not taking it seriously enough.

Illustrative photo: geralt / Pixabay,  CC0
Basically, the dream that is being chased by many companies now is achieving one day what has been termed the singularity, which is when the AI essentially breaks through and becomes self-aware, or if not that than certainly smarter than us, and then decides that it will do whatever it wants to for whatever reason. Some of these researchers see that coming very quickly and they believe that it will completely transform society as we know it.

“If it happens, it really will change our society. From my point of view and from what I studied, I think it might happen one day. I’m not actually sure how we will perceive it though. There is science behind this which says that our consciousness emerges from the organization of our brain, namely our neurons. Actually, if we simulated this successfully, the idea goes, the same result might happen.

“The problem is, it will be very difficult to determine the moment when something happens or doesn’t, because half of the people will say it is still a simulation, and the other half will say that it is real, and we don’t have any way to test whether or not it is real, and then we will have to debate about this topic. I also have to say that I worry a little bit, first of all, if there are visionaries like Elon Musk and many others who are saying we can achieve it, I think it is likely we will achieve at least part of it.”

“Is general AI achievable? Many visionaries think so, so perhaps it will be a reality, at least in part.”

Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have been talking about many of the topics we are talking about now, which are cropping up almost every day. It’s hard to imagine what’s coming but one already is aware we are on the cusp of major social, economic, and legal issues with even small changes. We are hearing and seeing the effects of robotics on many different industries affecting employment. There’s a huge threat that it will actually swamp society as we know it and that we are not ready for all of these adverse effects of all of these changes.

“Actually, I just read that there is now new robot that is even preparing pizza. It does everything up until the moment that the pizza will be put in an oven, so, there certainly are threats for employment and this will be one of the biggest threats. It will also partly be on the law to figure out how to regulate this development and how to help society transcend to a new era, because it absolutely will happen if we are not ready and do not have rules in place on how to behave, or guidelines, then it might be very harsh. I believe that society will adapt, but I’m not sure if we will the easy way, or the hard way.”

Illustrative photo: tmeier1964 / Pixabay,  CC0
To come back to the dream of the artificial human, and I don’t want to talk about robots that are putting together cars, but about humanoid robots and robotic companions. Already now there are researchers who have developed robots of themselves, they can go around with them to different festivals, including the one in Olomouc here in the Czech Republic earlier this year. There are people who are buying life-like companions. I read that there is a somewhere where there are going to be a venue even offering sex robots. All of this is happening or just around the corner…

“Actually, I think that people are excited about the possibility of having interactions with someone who looks like a human, but who does not frustrate them like a normal human because it is usual that in people’s interactions, there are some harsh moments, but with robots, it’s something new. It provides you with a tailored experience according to your own wishes. If you go to a place with sex robots, you get to choose whatever you want, and they program it as you wish and it is exactly how you would want it. On the other hand, there are others who don’t use the robots for these purposes, but, as you said, start to have feelings for them.

Is there also a danger for adults that some us will regress by communicating with an object that has no feelings and that, for all practical purposes, isn’t real?

Photo: Harper Perennial
“What you are describing is anthropomorphizing, which is when people project their feelings into something that is not living. There are some positive and negative effects of this. If I can mention some positive effects, when you have really lonely people who have nobody, they can really experience some good emotions and have better health. There is even a book called “Love and Sex with Robots” and at the end of the book, the author says that robots could solve the problem of loneliness.

“There are many people who have nobody to love, so they would have the robots. More and more young people, especially in China and Japan are choosing robotic partners. Especially in Japan, it is very difficult to live your life as a couple, especially women because if they get pregnant, companies will not want to hire them, they will not get promoted, and it is expected that when a woman gets married that she will stay at home for the rest of her life, so that may be a solution there.

“The adverse effect of this, though many, is that people will start to lack social skills. They will not know how to face disappointment or how to argue with one and other in a constructive manner. They will not know how to face reactions and emotions and have the pure functions of a normal human. What we don’t use, we lose. Another effect is that if we have humanoid robots and act towards them in a bad way, let’s say by raping or beating them, these practices may transfer to normal life. It is important that we do experiments and see how people will behave.

It seems that now, already, people who are using social media networks are communicating more with people from the other side of the world that people that are in their immediate surroundings. They might be living alone and suffering from loneliness, but that won’t help them in the long run because that person on the other side of the world, as real as their life is to them, the connection could be very thin, it might a shared photograph or joke, but that’s not a fulfilling relationship in the long run. Another aspect that occurs to me also, is that if you’re someone with a compliant robot of whatever level of intelligence, it may satisfy you for some time, but it will never push you anywhere to achieve goals or to avoid pitfalls.

“Who is responsible if a robot causes an accident? That is something that needs to be carefully defined.”

“I agree. In my opinion, strength is only achieved through adversity. Maybe you could have a tailor-made robot that can treat you badly, though, or push you to your limits, but then again, what will this cause in this society? I can’t imagine.”

It seems more and more fragmentation. Maybe that’s doom and gloom on my part, but it seems that there are so many rapid developments technologically, that sometimes it’s hard to keep track. Whether we are talking about human augmentation, advances in autonomous vehicles, robotics, artificial intelligence, it’s all happening at once on different levels but sometimes it seems that everything’s being fragmented and sometimes that we are caught in-between trying to rediscover where we belong in the scheme of things and whether we’ll let it overwhelm us or not.

“Actually, what you are saying is exactly what is happening, and a particular problem is that we have begun to forget that robots were invented to serve us for us. We are starting to put them on equal footing with us, or even worship them or love them. But they were designed to be our helpers and that may be the worst thing about it: that we stop perceiving them as tools.”