Whenever a new technology is introduced, it’s often viewed with suspicion and distrust, if not outright hostility.
Such was the case when robots were introduced into automotive assembly plants back in the early 1960s. Rather than welcome the machines for taking over dull, dirty and dangerous tasks, many workers saw them as an existential threat. Some workers even went so far as to sabotage robots to prove how unreliable and dangerous they were. Today, though the debate over robots and jobs is still smoldering to some extent, most workers accept the now ubiquitous technology as just another tool in the manufacturing arsenal.
Now, another new technology appears to be in the crosshairs of suspicion and paranoia: artificial intelligence. Last year, the European Commission released a 108-page proposal to regulate AI, describing it as an attempt to ensure a “well-functioning internal market for artificial intelligence systems” that is based on “EU values and fundamental rights.” It is the bloc’s first major attempt to comprehensively regulate such systems, and it could have global repercussions.
The proposal was prompted by growing concerns about how AI and other forms of algorithmic decision-making might affect social and economic rights. Some are worried that AI could be used to deny or limit access to life-saving benefits and other social services. Others fret about the use of AI for law enforcement, healthcare, banking and investment. In short, AI is one more step to Big Brother and a totalitarian state.
We can’t speak to such concerns. For manufacturing, however, AI holds tremendous promise. Already, AI is being used to make supply chains more resilient, to enhance machine vision for inspection, to empower engineers to explore the limits of design, and to enable robots to assemble complex products, such as automotive transmissions, with the same dexterity as people. Surely, those are all good things?
Concerned that the European Commission’s proposal will stifle innovation, the International Federation of Robotics, the VDMA Robotics + Automation Association, EUnited Robotics and REInvest Robotics have called on European policymakers to revisit and amend the act.
While all four organizations embrace the commission’s vision to maintain safety, protect human rights and create a harmonized framework for AI and robotics, they are worried that the proposal could unnecessarily limit development of a promising new technology. Specifically, the groups are concerned that:
- Mandatory third-party certification requirements will slow tech innovation across Europe.
- The restrictions will hinder AI adoption and put European companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), at a competitive disadvantage globally.
- The proposal will disrupt regional supply chains and logistics operations.
- Compliance with regulation worldwide will become more complex and burdensome.
“The International Federation of Robotics calls on European policymakers to amend [the proposal] to balance the protection of citizens with the market’s need to adopt new technologies and ensure a level-playing field for companies,” says Susanne Bieller, Ph.D., general secretary of the International Federation of Robotics. “This is not purely a European issue, as the proposed regulations will severely impact all companies bringing robots to the European market. In the long run, the new regulations will be to the disadvantage of European companies, especially SMEs and startups.”
“The proposed legislation will hold back European robotics innovation,” adds Esben Hallundbæk Østergaard, Ph.D., the CEO of REInvest Robotics and founder of Universal Robots. “This is particularly concerning given robotics is the one emerging tech segment where Europe still has an edge globally. Locally, the legislation will negatively affect thousands of small businesses, factories and manufacturers that rely on robotics and AI to automate critical operations and overcome labor shortages.”
Certainly, we should protect human rights—no one wants Big Brother or Skynet and the Terminator. At the same time, however, we must enable manufacturers to take full advantage of new technologies that can improve competitiveness and increase efficiency.