A humanoid robot named Pepper recently started a job as a receptionist in two hospitals in Belgium in what has been described as a world first

Robots could be classed as 'electronic persons' under EU rules

The European Union (EU) is considering a draft plan that could see Europe's growing army of robot workers classed as ‘electronic persons’, with their owners liable to pay social security for them.

Robots are being deployed in ever-greater numbers in factories and also taking on tasks such as personal care or surgery, raising fears over unemployment, wealth inequality and alienation.

Earlier this week, a survey found that the British public believed robots would outnumber human beings in the next 20 years. 

Their growing intelligence, pervasiveness and autonomy require rethinking everything from taxation to legal liability, a draft European Parliament motion, dated 31 May 2016, suggests.

Some robots are even taking on a human form: a humanoid robot named Pepper recently started a job as a receptionist in two hospitals in Belgium. 

However, Germany's VDMA, which represents companies such as automation giant Siemens and robot maker Kuka, says the proposals are too complicated and too soon.

German robotics and automation turnover rose seven per cent to €12.2bn (£9.4bn) last year and the country is keen to keep its edge in the latest industrial technology. Kuka is the target of a takeover bid by China's Midea.

The draft motion called on the European Commission to consider ‘that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations’.

It also suggested the creation of a register for smart autonomous robots, which would link each one to funds established to cover its legal liabilities.

Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA's robotic and automation department, said: "That we would create a legal framework with electronic persons - that's something that could happen in 50 years, but not in 10 years."

"We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics," he said, while acknowledging that a legal framework for self-driving cars would be needed soon.

The report added that robotics and artificial intelligence may result in a large part of the work now done by humans being taken over by robots, raising concerns about the future of employment and the viability of social security systems.

The Swiss people even voted on a proposal earlier this month to introduce a guaranteed basic income for everyone living in the country, due to fears that automation would lead to sharp rises in unemployment. The proposal was eventually rejected by a wide margin. 

The new 'robot rights' draft motion, drawn up by the European parliament's committee on legal affairs, also said that organisations should have to declare any savings made in social security contributions by using robotics instead of people for tax purposes.

Schwarzkopf said there was no proven correlation between increasing robot density and unemployment, pointing out that the number of employees in the German automotive industry rose by 13 per cent between 2010 and 2015, while industrial robot stock in the industry rose 17 per cent in the same period.

The motion faces an uphill battle to win backing from the various political blocks in European Parliament. Even if it did get enough support to pass, it would be a non-binding resolution as the Parliament lacks the authority to propose legislation.

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