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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Competition, coin mining and plastic memories: why the EU should watch the Web Summit carefully

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by Tiago Cabral, member of CEDU

After the overall success of the 2016 edition – with a few exceptions like the failing Wi-Fi[i]– Lisbon hosted for the second time “the largest tech conference in the world”. We are obviously referring to this year’s edition of Web Summit which brought about 60.000 attendees from more than 170 countries to the Portuguese capital. This event is obviously significant to the Portuguese economy with an investment of about 1.3 Million Euros originating an expected return of about 300 Million. But there is more to Web Summit than the number of attendees or its effect on the Portuguese economy (even if both are relevant), it offers a look into the future and the future brings a plethora of complicated legal and political challenges. Some of these challenges demand a supranational response and the EU should watch very carefully the trends coming out of Lisbon. In the following paragraphs, we shall highlight a few topics to illustrate.

1. “The Digital Single Market has become a new political and constitutional calling for the EU” and it cannot work in the absence of healthy competition. The European Commissioner for Competition’s “clearing the path for innovation” speech[ii] (7th November) – even if its content or delivery certainly did not impress us – made clear how seriously the Commission is taking this issue. American Tech Giants dominate the EU’s market and without proper competition enforcement, European companies may fall prey to anti-competitive behaviour before they have the chance to get a foothold. The speech also made a few interesting points about the growing importance of big data in competition and about trust in competition. However, it had a rather uncomfortable “Google paranoia” emanating from it. The 2.42€ billion fine against Google for breaching EU antitrust rules was historic – whether or not we agree with it –, but so were, for example, Microsoft v. Commission (2007) and the 561€ million fine against Microsoft (2013) for non-compliance with browser choice commitments. Yet, by name the Commissioner only referred to Google. There was a reference to the issue of special tax treatment, which immediately brings the controversies with Apple and Amazon[iii] to mind, but the companies were not named. Since there was no time to properly explain the details of the referred antitrust proceeding – or of the other two ongoing antitrust proceedings against Google, regarding AdSense and Android – the speech did nothing to further inform the audience on this issue and only left the feeling that there is a fixation on Google in the Commission. Interestingly, the 6th November intervention by the Commissioner where she was interviewed by Kara Swisher suffers no such issues. The interviewer asked the right questions, what companies are breaking the rules, what is the Commission’s reaction and what are the consequences. There was no singling out of a company with references to Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, no attempts to explain the complicated reasoning behind the proceedings in a few short minutes, the comparisons to the US also added value to the interview.

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