A few months ago, the Joint Research Centre, the research centre of the European Commission, organised an online conference dedicated to investigating the prospects for robotics in Europe, bringing together recognised specialists from industry, academia and politics. The Joint Research Centre’s mission is to provide independent scientific advice to support EU decision-making.
The discussions and papers of the various speakers have been published in a Report, which is available for free download: https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC125343
The conference was organised in the context of Europe’s efforts to seize the opportunities offered by digital transformation, where robotics is a leading sector. Among the important motivations for the conference was the lesson learned from the effects of the pandemic, namely that robotics and Artificial Intelligence can help make Europe more resilient. However, it was also pointed out that the massive use of robots is not without its challenges: from the ethical impacts on humans, in particular children and young people, to the impact it could have on the labour market. The combination of all these aspects set the tone for the international conference where speakers expressed their ideas for maximising the benefits and minimising the risks brought by robots.
The Report foreshadows the possibility of robots becoming a social risk. Robots, once released from the cage of their industrial application and, especially, in combination with AI applications, may represent a real challenge for our society. From the massive replacement of jobs to the de-humanisation of the labour market – workers managed by algorithms – to their use for population control, robots can be a risk for humans, especially children. The various discussions during the conference led to one main conclusion: the only way to ensure that a massive societal adoption of robotics technology maximises benefits and minimises problems is through “decisive, agile, horizontal, coordinated and multidisciplinary” public intervention.
The robotics market in Europe
The EU is a major player in the robotics industry, producing almost a third of all robots in the world: the rapporteurs stressed that any public intervention, national or European, will have to ensure that Europe can maintain this role. Robots will be instrumental in the successful deployment of other disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence, and will also be massive producers of data which, if used in full compliance with European legislation and EU rights, can in turn boost the development of the European economy. As data, AI and robotics are closely interlinked and at the forefront of digital transformation, a leading role in one of them can help accelerate Europe’s role in the others.
Main conclusions and proposed measures
At the conclusion of the conference, a number of urgent measures were discussed:
- Regarding the impact of automation and robots on employment, decision-makers should maintain a balance between the job cancellation and the job creation potential that will result from the introduction of these technologies. This requires far-reaching policy initiatives to ensure support for redundant workers, strengthening of the welfare state, investment in lifelong learning and digital infrastructure.
- Robotic technologies typically originate in research institutes and are then exploited in technology companies. Europe, with its strong basic research, could focus on research&development, to ensure a competitive advantage in the realisation of robotic technologies.
- Regarding service and collaborative robots, decision-makers should focus on innovation at regional level, and on the application of robots in industry; create and nurture an active ecosystem of robotics start-ups to increase the number of robots in use; and seize the opportunity for greater public sector involvement.
- The massive adoption of robotic technology should ensure that these technologies are developed to be robust, reliable, and that their design and development are in accordance with human rights values.
- Policymakers should consider the negative environmental impact that the massive deployment of AI and robotics technologies could bring. They should make sure that recycling and upcycling plans are already considered in the design and development phases by manufacturers.
- It is important to build methodologies so that, when interacting with robots, humans are always in control and command. Robots and AI can support decision-making, but the responsibility remains with humans.
- An ethical assessment of the technology should be carried out before implementing AI/robotics technology.
- Decision-makers should design a regulatory framework to minimise the risk to children during child-robot social interaction.