Robots and civil liability (ongoing work within the EU)

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 by Susana Navas Navarro, Professor of Civil Law, Autonomous University of Barcelona

The broad interest shown by the European Union (EU) for the regulation of different aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence is nowadays very well known.[i] One of those aspects concerns the lines of thinking that I am interested in: civil liability for the use and handling of robots. Thus, in the first instance, it should be determined what is understood by “robot” for the communitarian institutions. In order to be considered as “robot”, an entity should meet the following conditions: i) acquisition of autonomy via sensors or exchanging data with the environment (interconnectivity), as well as the processing and analysis of this data; ii) capacity to learn from experience and also through interaction with other robots; iii) a minimal physical medium to distinguish them from a “virtual” robot; iv) adaptation of its behaviour and actions to the environment; v) absence of biological life. This leads to three basic categories of “smart robots”: 1) cyber-physical systems; 2) autonomous systems; 3) smart autonomous robots.[ii] Therefore, strictly speaking, a “robot” is an entity which is corporeal and, as an essential part of it, may or may not incorporate a system of artificial intelligence (embodied AI).

The concept of “robot” falls within the definition of AI, which is specified, on the basis of what scholars of computer science have advised, as: “Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are software (and possibly also hardware) systems designed by humans that, given a complex goal, act in the physical or digital dimension by perceiving their environment through data acquisition, interpreting the collected structured or unstructured data, reasoning on the knowledge, or processing the information, derived from this data and deciding the best action(s) to take to achieve the given goal. AI systems can either use symbolic rules or learn a numeric model, and they can also adapt their behaviour by analysing how the environment is affected by their previous actions. 
As a scientific discipline, AI includes several approaches and techniques, such as machine learning (of which deep learning and reinforcement learning are specific examples), machine reasoning (which includes planning, scheduling, knowledge representation and reasoning, search, and optimization), and robotics (which includes control, perception, sensors and actuators, as well as the integration of all other techniques into cyber-physical systems”.[iii]

Concerning the robot as a corporeal entity, issues related to civil liability are raised from a twofold perspective: firstly, in relation to the owner of a robot in the case of causation of damages to third parties when there is no legal relationship between them; and, secondly, regarding the damages that the robot may be caused to third parties due to its defects. From a legal standpoint, it should be noted that in most cases the “robot” is considered as “movable good” that, furthermore, may be classified as a “product”. We shall focus on each of these perspectives separately.
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