March 28, 2019

What if robots break something during maintenance?

Imagine that you’ve deployed a robot to carry out maintenance to property or on-premise installations, but that robot breaks something during its work. Who will be liable? It’s a question coming to the forefront now that robots are being deployed professionally with increasing frequency. So far, the debate has been mainly about the dangers inherent to artificial intelligence, thus keeping things hypothetical and speculative.  However, the discussions are now touching upon the concrete risks related to the use of robots. Who will be held liable if a robot breaks something while performing its tasks?

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The opportunities and risks of maintenance by robots

I wrote in a previous blog that deploying robots to assist us in complex tasks is coming steadily closer. After all, a great deal of money can be saved by using sensors, robotics, and simulations for inspections, repairs, and major maintenance. It’s no longer a question of whether it’s going to happen, but when. This means many organizations are now considering the concrete applications of robots, as well as the associated opportunities and dangers.

Even Google is weighing in on this discussion and sweeping the debate along with a cleaning robot as an example. In the paper “Concrete Problems in AI Safety, Google’s research team raises five practical problems:

  1. What if a cleaning robot does indeed perform its duties, but knocks over a vase in doing so?
  2. What if a robot chooses getting a reward above performing its task, for example by not clearing up a small pile of rubbish but by covering it?
  3. What if a robot repeatedly keeps asking for the same instructions and does not adapt its duties according to the human instructions?
  4. What if robots are not careful enough, and they insert a wet mop into an electrical socket, for instance?
  5. What if robots don’t adapt to the environment if it is just a little different to the one for which they were trained?

Who will be liable?

The more duties robots can perform, the more issues like these will arise. At the same time, robots are increasingly being deployed to work more autonomously, which has its own implications in terms of legal liability. That’s because as things stand at the moment, only an actual person can perform a punishable offence. In the debate on self-driving cars, the outcome appears to be that liability can also be established for the owner or driver, just as it can in the case of damage by animals, for example. What does this mean for robots who perform maintenance or cleaning?

It’s not inconceivable that robots will soon have to make choices. Could a robot weigh up the risks and pass judgement on them? For instance, is breaking a vase legitimized if the place is indeed cleaned well? And what if bodily harm is caused to a person?

In my experience, the human eye is far better at weighing these types of judgements than a robot. I think we need to aim for a situation where robots in such conflict situations can ask for the help of a person to make the judgement call, which means an actual person becomes responsible for making the decision. This is a practical solution to a practical problem; as we are not yet anywhere near having a fully autonomous robot, it’s not yet necessary to already have a solution to these issues.

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