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Eversheds associate Elena Neidhart on "Natural, physical and … electronic persons: the emergency of electronic personality in the modern society?"

  • Switzerland

    02-11-2016

    An American psychologist, Mr Erich Fromm, once said “the danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots”…

    If it is true that we still remain slaves of the modern society, shall we be beware of transforming into robots or rather competing with them? 

    The increasing number of robots in our society, and especially those that replace not only human tasks but also positions, legitimately led to the discussion of the idea of granting a legal personality to robots in the European Union (“EU”) and Switzerland. 

    On 31 May 2016, the Committee on Legal Affairs of the EU produced a draft report 2015/2013 (INL) with its recommendations to the European Parliament addressing a number or problems dealing with the “robotisation” of the modern society. Indeed, such problems emerge, as not only the sale of robots rise drastically, but also because their role in production and commerce, transport, medical care, education and farming becomes significantly important.

    The Committee on Legal Affairs took the view in its draft that “thanks to the impressive technological advances of the last decade, not only are today's robots able to perform activities which used to be typically and exclusively human, but the development of autonomous and cognitive features – e.g. the ability to learn from experience and take independent decisions – has made them more and more similar to agents that interact with their environment and are able to alter it significantly”.

    This evolution clearly shows that today’s legal system lacks legislation and flexibility to address all the questions dealing with liability and viability of today’s social security system, with the intellectual property rights and many other spheres.

    As for Switzerland, the debates seem perfectly justified as well. This is also so because Switzerland hosts a couple of the world’s top industrial robotic companies. ABB, for example, a Zurich-based company, is a global leader in the manufacture of industrial robots. Stäubli is another Swiss mechatronics company which produces Scara robots, 4- and 6-axis robots and other types of robots for industrial automation, active in plastics, photovoltaics, life sciences and other fields. Their production and distribution increases at the speed of light…

    The debate in Switzerland started with an article “Taxation of robots?” of Prof. Xavier Oberson, professor of Swiss and International tax law at the University of Geneva, in the business magazine, Bilan, on 25 July 2016. This article was complemented by his interview of 17 October 2016, published by Le Temps, and entitled “A robot could refuse to pay taxes!”

    Prof. Xavier Oberson underlined that bearing in mind the increasing power of artificial intelligence and the robotisation of the society, which is more likely to decrease the number of “physical” employees than to create new working places, we should seriously think of granting robots with a legal personality. As a consequence, robots’ contributory capacity would be recognized and they would pay taxes as any other physical person.

    Mr Marco Salvi, a senior fellow and a research director of Avenir Suisse, answered to this interview on 31 October 2016 by an article “Taxation of robots? Bad idea”.

    Mr Marco Salvi seems to be categorically against the taxation of robots for the following reasons. Firstly, according to him, legal persons are taxed for practical reasons and not philosophical. Secondly, that taxation of robots would rather represent a sort of income tax. And finally he asserts that robots would most likely not be able to follow the human progress on the same level as human beings. As example, he evokes a guitar playing robot who could not follow or compete with a human being.

    Even if it is true that “the Robot” from “Lost in Space” movie, an electric guitar playing robot, cannot compete with John McLaughlin, for example, and that Toyota’s Robot Violinist from the Shanghai World Expo cannot be compared to a human virtuoso, these musical capacities, even very limited, clearly show the robots’ versatile movements and precisions.

    Even though these robots cannot fill a concert hall today, one must bear in mind that all these surprising capacities will not only develop with time, but already today robots are widely used in industrial manufacturing, medical service, transport, farming etc. Robots are also very valuable to scientists, who can send the robots to places that humans cannot go, such as deep space or the bottom of the ocean. Robots are also sent to Mars to conduct numerous experiments.

    All these reasons made the Committee on Legal Affairs conclude that we need to create a "specific legal status for robots, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause, and applying electronic personality to cases where robots make smart autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently".

    Indeed, robots’ autonomy, their capacity to take decisions and interact with the environment legitimately justify granting these creatures with a legal, or a sort of “electronic” personality in order to address the question of liability, render the social security system viable and adapted to the current changes…

    Finally, if the human beings have enough cognitive capacities to create “intelligent” robots, there is no need to worry about any sort of competition. Mr Michio Kaku, an American physician and futurist, was so right when he said “it's very dangerous to put astronauts on a moon base where there's radiation, solar flares and micro meteorites. It'd be much better to put robots on the moon and have them mentally connected to astronauts on the Earth”.

    Disclaimer

    This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full terms and conditions on our website.

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