Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / June 30, 2016

How will robots change our lives? New study on the Ethics of Cyber-Physical Systems

Updated on 20 July 2016 Written by Lieve van Woensel, Christian Kurrer and Mihalis Kritikos, Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) are defined…

©Shutterstock, Photodiem

Updated on 20 July 2016

Written by Lieve van Woensel, Christian Kurrer and Mihalis Kritikos,

© Shutterstock, Photodiem

Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) are defined as technical systems of networked computers, robots and artificial intelligence that interact with the physical world. In order to support the Members of the European Parliament in their anticipation of possible future concerns regarding developments in CPS, robotics and artificial intelligence, the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel has committed a foresight study entitled ‘Ethical aspects of CPS’.

The foresight study was launched by STOA upon the request of the European Parliament’s (EP) Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) to provide evidence to the Working Group on legal questions related to the development of Robotics, chaired by MEP Mady DELVAUX. The group examined the future needs for civil law rules in connection with robotics and artificial intelligence. The debates in the Working Group were fed into the draft report on Civil Law Rules on Robotics written by MEP DELVAUX.

The accompanying STOA Scientific Foresight study was conducted according to the approach presented in depth in the concept paper ‘Towards Scientific Foresight in the European Parliament’. A short video clip and a Legal/ Policy Briefing translating the study outcomes into legal reflections and recommendations are also available.

The aim of the study was to examine future development paths for CPS technology up to 2050. It sets out to highlight potential unintended consequences and ethical concerns. The study is intended to support the European Parliament, the parliamentary committees and other parliamentary bodies, as well as individual Members, in their anticipation of possible future concerns regarding developments in CPS, robotics and artificial intelligence. For example, autonomous cars promise greater fuel and time efficiency, and greater safety for the drivers and pedestrians. But, who could be held responsible for possible damages and security failures if an accident happens when your child is driven to school alone?

Study: ‘Ethical Aspects of Cyber-Physical Systems
Policy Briefing: ‘Legal and ethical reflections concerning robotics

The study was carried out in three phases:

  1. In the initial ‘technical horizon scan’ phase, the key technical developments and trends were described and the respective societal, ethical and other impacts were identified. Among the application areas covered were: CPS for people with disabilities and for daily life; for healthcare; for agriculture and the food supply; for manufacturing; for energy and critical infrastructures; for logistics and transport; and for community security and safety. The analysis looks into the social, technological, environmental, economic, political/legal, ethical and demographic aspects of CPS applications.
  2. A subsequent phase identified possible future impacts and concerns. After a first analysis of possible impacts of the trends bringing technical experts and social scientists together, a set of exploratory future scenarios was developed to guide a more in-depth analysis of the possible future concerns related to CPS.
  3. A ‘legal backcasting’ phase identified areas of legal concern and the respective legal instruments that may need to be modified or reviewed. In this phase, the outcomes from the previous steps were transformed into a forward-looking instrument for the European Parliament, the parliamentary committees and the Members of the European Parliament.

Read the study on the European Parliament’s STOA website.

Overall conclusions of the study

Exploring the future effects of CPS shows that it could have considerable impacts on various areas in our personal and professional lives. The deployment of interconnected autonomous working machines in complicated data environments touches upon a number of legal areas, such as accountability, liability, data ownership and privacy. Designing CPS for operation in proximity to humans means that current safety regulations need to be updated to ensure that individuals are not harmed and that the desired benefits outweigh the potential unintended consequences.

The legal reflections regarding Cyber-Physical Systems that translate ethical concerns and soft impacts into legal challenges and regulatory food for thought are also published as a self-standing ‘Policy Briefing’, which might be useful for practical use in the relevant parliamentary committees: AGRI (Agriculture and Rural Development), EMPL (Employment and Social Affairs), IMCO (Internal Market and Consumer Protection), ITRE (Industry, Research and Energy), JURI (Legal Affairs), INTA (International Trade) LIBE (Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) and TRAN (Transport and Tourism).

In the first instance, the STOA report might be a useful ‘tool’ for the relevant committees to prepare their opinions on the DELVAUX draft report on Civil Law Rules on Robotics. If adopted, the report is expected to act as a basis for future legislative activities at the EU level.


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