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17th Apr 2021

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Robotics MEP angry at lack of Commission response on AI

The author of a European Parliament report on artificial intelligence and robotics has told EUobserver she was growing frustrated with the lack of action on the issue from the European Commission - more than a year after the report was published.

"I thought the commission would come forward with some regulatory proposal, at least on something," said centre-left Luxembourgish MEP Mady Delvaux-Stehres.

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  • A driverless shuttle vehicle in the UK. Delvaux points to the legal problems of the 'driver' of a driverless car being expected to react to difficult situations (Photo: Department for Transport (DfT))

"I don't see any progress in the matter," she said.

The parliament adopted the non-binding report drafted by Delvaux a year ago this month.

The commission has scheduled to announce "an initiative on artificial intelligence and robotics" at the end of April, but hard law is not in the cards.

"Of course they agree with everything, but they do not propose action," said Delvaux in an interview on Tuesday (27 February), at the Cybersec conference in Brussels.

Delvaux – and the 395 other MEPs who also supported the report – asked the commission to come with EU legislation on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

Specifically, MEPs asked for "a proposal for a legislative instrument on legal questions related to the development and use of robotics and AI foreseeable in the next 10 to 15 years." Only the commission has the power to propose legislation.

No action from Commission

Delvaux said she feared that, in the absence of an EU directive or regulation, member states would each introduce their own laws, possibly conflicting with each other.

"Every country is mobilising, making action plans. One commissioner once told me, when members states start to pass or prepare laws then it is really urgent that the commission becomes active," she said.

"This is not a drama, we can live with it. But it would be much easier if we had common principles," she added.

Driverless cars

One of the most well-known examples of practical applications of artificial intelligence is the self-driving, or driverless car.

For that innovation to work, the most important thing is trust, said Delvaux.

"I think the car industry harmed themselves enormously with this Dieselgate," she noted, referring to the widespread practice of diesel cars being more dirty than the EU emissions limits allow.

"I don't trust anymore the car industry," said Delvaux, herself a former minister of transport.

She pointed to the German law on self-driving cars, adopted last year, which requires drivers still being able to take control of the wheel.

"The driver is liable for everything that happens. I am very sceptical. If you tell people that you can trust your car, and the car is driving, and suddenly the car tells you 'now you have to take over', I think this is very dangerous," she said.

"What I imagined [as] driverless car was that I really don't have to care – that I can do something else, read or sleep or play games, but not being liable for if a difficult situation appears."

One of the reasons why the commission has not yet proposed hard law, Delvaux said she thought, was because of the complexity and cross-sectoral nature of AI.

She noted that at least five departments of the commission needed to be involved: the directorates-general industry; research and innovation; mobility; communication networks; and justice and consumers.

"I think it is a difficult synergy between the competences," she said, referring to the EU jargon word for authority.

The centre-left MEP also stressed the importance of a commissioner's personal interest.

Until 1 January 2017, the digital economy was part of the portfolio of German EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

"I think Oettinger discovered robots too late. … He was really a friend of car industry. When he spoke about cars he was really illuminated. I think by the end, before he left, he discovered that robotics is an interesting issue," she said.

Now, Bulgarian commissioner Mariya Gabriel is in charge of the issue. Gabriel used to be an MEP, and she voted in favour of the Delvaux report calling for legislation.

"But of course she is not alone, and you need some time to convince your colleagues," the MEP said.

Time is something which is running out, at least for now.

"If it does not come before June, it is too late for this mandate," said Delvaux, adding she was not expecting any legislative proposal anymore.

After the summer, the parliament will go into campaign mode, with the European Parliament elections planned for May 2019. It will then be November 2019 before a new European Commission is in place.

"A file which has not been introduced before June – well you can discuss it, but it will not be adopted," said Delvaux.

Macron

Meanwhile however, pressure on the commission is increasing.

Last May, the commission rejected the parliament's suggestion for a European agency for robotics and AI. But a few months later, French president Emmanuel Macron proposed exactly such an agency.

At an EU summit last October, the EU's 28 leaders said that the commission should come with a "European approach to artificial intelligence" in early 2018.

"Member states want action, they want something to be done, [they] don't want only a paper," said Delvaux, adding the citizens supported that drive.

"For once there is agreement and consensus that we have to regulate at European level."

Autonomous weapons

For one field, Delvaux thinks it is already too late: autonomous weapons.

The automation of arms is something that was left outside the scope of the parliament report, because it was too complicated.

"It is also an issue we have to discuss on international level," said Delvaux.

"I would welcome if the European Union would come forward with ethical principles, and then we can say: we don't want autonomous weapons," she said.

"I'm afraid it is already too late. These weapons exist already. They could be used. I think this is dramatic. It's a disaster."

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