Risk Insider: Kate Browne

Who Will Be Sued When A Robot Causes Harm?

By: | May 22, 2018

Kate Browne Esq., ARM is Senior Counsel Executive & Professional at Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance. She has spent her entire career in the insurance industry, and speaks and writes extensively on the impact on the legal implications of drones, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, and other emerging risks. Kate can be reached at [email protected].

Movies and television programs have often portrayed robots as the ideal worker or companion: Rosie the lovable robot housekeeper from the Jetsons, the medical droids who treated Luke Skywalker after his duel with Darth Vader, and the unnamed robot who repeatedly warned Will Robinson of the dangers of being “Lost in Space.” However, in real life there can be issues with a robot’s performance.

For example, during Tesla’s recent earnings call, Elon Musk stated that delays in the rollout of the Model 3 were in part due to the fact that, “We tried to automate the placement of fluff to the top of the battery pack…the line kept breaking down because Flufferbot would frequently just fail to pick up the fluff…or would put it in a random location.”

Advancements in robotics will continue and someday robots may have the ability to learn and operate independently. When they do, there will inevitably be incidents where robots hurt people or damage property. Who will be liable when a robot causes harm? Can a robot be an employee or are they more akin to a pet? Do robots need a legal status that would make them responsible for their own actions?

Who will be liable when a robot causes harm? Can a robot be an employee or are they more akin to a pet? Do robots need a legal status that would make them responsible for their own actions?

Last year the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs issued a draft report and motion calling for a set of civil law rules that would govern the autonomy, manufacturing and use of robots. The EU report acknowledged that improvements in the autonomous and cognitive abilities of robots makes them more than simple tools, and makes the traditional rules on tort and contract liability inadequate.

The report suggested creating a central registry for “smart autonomous robots” so their ownership can be traced; drafting a code of ethics for robot manufacturers and researchers that reflects the values embodied in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Human Rights; and the creation of a new category of “electronic person” similar to the laws which make a corporation a “person.”

While the EU is among the first groups to formally consider these issues, other countries have also begun to examine the impact of smart robots. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry created guidelines addressing business and safety issues for next generation robots, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently issued a report on emerging technologies which included a section on robotics.

Someday, in the not too distant future, lawyers and experts in courtrooms around the world may discuss and debate what evidence is needed to demonstrate the proper programming of a robot. Whether it’s the protocols for updating its software and operating systems, or a defective product or procedure caused by human error or malfunctioning robots. Things may get particularly interesting when robotics use open source software.

Who will be sued when there are millions of “creators?” New insurance products will need to be created and regulations will likely need to be drafted.

The insurance industry is no stranger to disruptive technologies. Over the last three hundred years we have responded to the issues created by sea travel, freight trains, passenger planes, and the internet. Robots are likely to be the next transformational technology.

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