In recent years, humankind has come closer to the establishment of a new economy with increased reliance on sophisticated robots and artificial intelligence (AI), which will most likely impact all strata of society. As a European Parliament resolution from February 2017 highlighted, it is “vitally important for the legislature to consider its legal and ethical implications and effects.” For now, however, policy makers are limping behind the advances in research and development. There hasn’t been enough attention paid to the changes that are challenging our existing norms and ethics and that might disrupt the balance between fundamental rights and public interests.
In view of this, the Green European Journal asked experts, activists, and politicians active in this field around Europe, in or around the Green galaxy, about the impact of these developments in their national contexts. The second question of this Green Observatory seeks to discern what the Green positions and opinions on these developments are.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in France?
In France, business and political leaders treat artificial intelligence and robotics not as a threat but as an opportunity for society. According to them, these new developments will help workers – and workers are not afraid that eventually they might even take their jobs. They believe that these technologies will push forward medicine and law – and will not raise ethical issues at all. And, above all, they think, these technologies will allow France to stand out in the global market – and shame on the pessimists who want to curb the development of this tremendous opportunity.
In 2016, a national survey, called ‘France AI’ was conducted, in which 500 experts were asked to elaborate on the issues related to the expansion of AI, including the economic and social consequences. In the end, the negative impacts were played down substantially: the document only mentioned the most optimistic expectations. That is, however, not surprising given that the so-called ‘experts’ were mostly CEOs of AI start-ups.
So, it is to be feared that the second report, launched in September and led by the mathematician Cédric Villani, will be in the same vein. As a result, these potential negative impacts are not very present in the public and political debate. Benoit Hamon, the socialist and Green candidate in the presidential election of 2017, did raise the subject – one of his proposals was to introduce universal basic income to face the rise of unemployment created by AI and robots. But all his political competitors, including the new president Emmanuel Macron, ridiculed his political agenda.
What are the Greens’ positions and proposals today in your country regarding robotics and artificial intelligence?
At this time, the main Green party – Europe Écologie les Verts – has not adopted an official position on AI and robotics, but the issues that these technologies raise are extensively debated within the party.
Two views coexist:
On the one side, the ‘low tech’ supporters think that technologies are in any case a tool of the ruling class to increase its domination and wealth; and that the development of AI and robots will therefore further increase economic, social, and ecological inequalities. On the other side, a large part of the Green party membership believes that the technologies could be used as tools not for the capital but for the people: for the common good.
Both strands of the Greens agree, however, that, for now, the developments in the field of AI and robotics serve almost exclusively the interests of the ruling class, and that they are destroying our nature, health, and work. It is therefore urgent that citizens and politicians become aware of these issues, in order to build a legislative framework.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in Finland?
The first issue, robotisation has not been too prominent on the public agenda in Finland. On the one hand, there has been a limited focus on the possible threats of robotisation, especially on its potential adverse effects on the labour market – the main driving forces behind this debate being a couple of very influential articles on “vanishing jobs”. On the other hand, there has been a genuine, even naive, infatuation for all things robotic which has been promoted by a few, moderately popular, evangelists in different public seminars and articles.
On a more positive and realistic note, the effects of digitalisation, in general, have been reported and discussed widely. As Finland has slowly emerged from the financial distress and depression which has lasted for around ten years, there is a widely shared view that the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry has played a key role in this positive turn in our economy. Thus, both the discussion about and the investments in digitalisation across our industries and service sectors have been substantial – ranging from simple service digitalisation to artificial intelligence, where applicable.
All in all, as Finland has traditionally focused on providing high value investments goods to the global market, digitalisation is seen as a positive contribution to the society as a whole.
What are the Greens’ positions and proposals today in your country regarding robotics and artificial intelligence?
The Green positions are based on our traditional ideological stance: we say that the technological advances should provide surplus to the economy and the society as a whole; and this surplus should be distributed fairly. Therefore, the Green solution in Finland has been to promote basic income, which could be considered as a ‘national dividend’- or a sharing out of the profits generated – from the technological advances. Of course, the practical issues in collecting tax revenues, as well as in implementing an effective model for basic income, are going to be challenging.
On the other hand, the Greens advocate an approach where more resources should be directed towards education and research as a whole. This would also lead to further advances in these fields (robotics and AI). In addition to this, the Greens advocate making these advances a part of implemented public policy – for example in traffic policies, where the Greens are advocating all kinds of MaaS (Mobility as a Service) projects, such as the introduction of automatic buses on short routes.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in Austria?
The market research group GFK published a revealing study in 2016: A representative pool of Austrians was asked to name the greatest challenges that lie ahead for the country; and the most frequently mentioned concerns were migration, unemployment, and retirement arrangements.
Digitalisation didn’t even make it into the top ten; let alone robotics and AI. But no doubt, the future outlook of Austrian society will be decisively shaped by these factors, especially due to some particularities. The share of the industrial sector in Austria is significantly above EU-average, the national unemployment rate is substantially lower than the European median rate (5.4 % and 7.7 % respectively), and the overall investment into Research & Development is one of the highest among EU Member States. Nevertheless, the percentage of internet users still remains below the EU average.
Due to the new developments, manual labour in the manufacturing sector is expected to decline significantly, especially those jobs linked directly to the manufacturing process. This development could hit the Austrian economy and welfare state comparably hard. Furthermore, the rather high Austrian Research & Development investment rate signifies that the implementation of AI and robotics could happen even quicker than in other national economies, since it actually accelerates the structural transition to automated work. However, a public discussion about the topic is entirely missing.
What are the Greens’ positions and proposals today in your country regarding robotics and artificial intelligence?
A coherent assessment of the Austrian Green party’s standpoint on robotics and AI turns out to be impossible. The Green election manifesto that was published ahead of the Austrian general elections this year consists of 64 pages but the topic is not even mentioned once.
Whenever the paper discusses the role of technology, it merely lists the threats that are generally associated with digitalisation. It outlines the risks for the traditional labour market, and highlights the challenges of Information Technology (IT) for the education sector and the cultural industries. However, any elaboration on opportunities and uncertainties linked to robotics or AI are completely missing. This is a regrettable omission since it would be easy to gain the thematic leadership in this regard.
What do we actually expect from robotics and AI? This main question could determine all subsequent considerations. To initiate an overdue public discussion, to frame it progressively, to relate it with the imperative of a Green economic transition – these substantial guidelines could become the cornerstones of any Green deliberation. Besides the legal aspects and social implications, further recalibrations are necessary to advance the topic. Additionally, it would need reflections on new frameworks for private-public partnerships. It demands public funds that courageously invest into basic research, the establishment of market mechanism that allow to cope with failure, tax incentives that keep an eye on the long-term perspective, and ideas on how to fairly use the new value creation as a source of funding for the welfare state.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in Hungary?
Hungary is among those Eastern European countries that may be hit hardest by robotisation. According to the forecasts (among others, according to the words of Mihály Varga, the Hungarian minister for national economy) 350, 000 to 400,000 thousand of the current 4 million jobs could get lost, but the World Bank is even more pessimistic: it expects that up to 55 % of Hungarian workplaces could be threatened. Moreover, the adverse effects of robotisation would most likely hit the less developed regions, thereby further deepening the crisis of the labour market.
Nevertheless, the governing Fidesz-KDNP coalition (Alliance of Young Democrats / Christian Democratic People’s Party) is working on making the country even more vulnerable. It is for example spending large amounts of taxpayers’ money on state subsidies for companies in the manufacturing sector that can in the future replace their cheap labour force with even cheaper robots. So, even if these investments are now improving our labour and employment statistics, they cannot provide a solution for the long-run.
The labour unions are already raising alarms on these issues, but the government doesn’t seem to take notice. It continues to divert funds from the training and education system, which will leave youth less prepared for the demands of the labour market, and will make it harder in the future to motivate them to undergo further trainings. Although, these days, cheap and less skilled workers seem to fulfil the needs of foreign investors, the chances for them are bleak to find a new occupation once their workplaces are gone – very often the only opportunities they find are abroad. And even at universities, there is less and less emphasis on activities related to Research and Development, thus there is a shortage of well-trained experts as well.
Most opposition parties are supportive of some form of basic income scheme, but when it comes to answering the question of how to mitigate the effects of robotisation on our labour market, they are unable to come up with concrete answers. Only half a year away from the next parliamentary elections in 2018, the only issue where we can see serious proposals is education. Improving the education system is, of course, of key importance when it comes to tackling the challenges of the coming years. However, it is only one of the many issues that need fixing.
But what about robotisation? If we look at the left-wing parties in Hungary, it is only Dialogue for Hungary (or PM), a Green party with a 1%support in the overall population, that is willing to advocate a pan-European tax scheme on robots. According to their plans, the collected taxes would be used to support and educate those workers who have lost their jobs due to technological advancements. LMP, a Green party that will most likely continue to have seats in the parliament following the next election, doesn’t seem to pay attention to the issue at all.
There is of course an explanation for this negligence: the Hungarian labour market is facing a number of immediate challenges that need to be tackled, and most politicians don’t seem to be prepared to think about the long-term challenges.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in Belgium?
The current state of the debate in Belgium is worrying: these issues are not discussed to the extent they should be. The federal and regional governments of our country have not created any political framework to deal with these issues – for example, no research groups have been officially launched to forecast the impacts of these transformations – while in the meantime France, Germany, and the Netherlands have already done quite some work on these issues. Until now, Belgium hasn’t even started.
Moreover, robotics, AI, and their impacts on jobs are not even (formally) discussed within the trade unions – which is also quite concerning.
However, there is also some good news: some parliamentarians try to handle those questions and to put them on the national agenda, because they think – rightly – that robotics and AI are two fundamental challenges for our future. Gilles Vanden Burre and Evita Willaert, two Green members of the federal parliament, recently wrote a motion that invites the federal government to provide an “inclusive and sustainable digital agenda” to face the upcoming challenges.
What are the Greens’ positions and proposals today in Belgium regarding robotics and artificial intelligence?
These technological developments will open up new opportunities for individuals and society, and also for the Green political project. But these transformations will, at the same time, carry new risks, especially for those who are already weakened by our political and economic system.
The task of politics is to maximise the opportunities and reduce the risks. For the Greens, robotics and AI, especially in relation to jobs issues, provide an opportunity to fundamentally restructure our policies toward work and employment. Greens therefore promote a set of smart regulations which turn these transformations into opportunities by adjusting our education, training, revenue, and tax systems (within environmental limits).
In the future, career transitions will happen much more often, therefore, it is of great importance to create new mechanisms that can secure the livelihoods of workers, without immobilising them. The proposals of basic income are particularly relevant regarding these issues.
More specifically, the Greens promote six priorities: 1. Introduce children to the principles of programming, raise awareness about digital ethics, and (re)invest massively in higher education. 2. Formulate a universal right to lifelong professional learning. 3. Secure and streamline professional transitions through the introduction of a basic income scheme. 4. Rather than taxing robots, help small businesses profit from automation. 5. Accelerate the digital transformation of public services. 6. Help keep the digital transformations within environmentally sustainable boundaries.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in Romania?
Despite initiatives at European level to discuss the legal and political implications of recent developments in this field, questions on the ethics, rights, and limitations of the use of robots and AI are quasi absent from the Romanian political agenda. This comes as no surprise, considering that Romania has been facing a period of political unrest since the beginning of 2017, when the Social Democratic Party (PSD) came into power. Citizens then took to the streets to protest against ordinance bills intended to amend the Penal Code and pardon crimes related to abuse of power. The bills were withdrawn under the pressure of what became the largest civic protest since 1989 and Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu was replaced in June 2017 by Mihai Tudose (PSD).
Despite its absence from the political debate, the topic has been, however, present in the media where robots are portrayed as a ‘threat’ to jobs that are currently performed by humans. An article in the Romanian newspaper Capital recently indicated that 2.5 million jobs are in danger of disappearing due to automation, while the Bruegel European think tank was warning in 2014 that Romania has the highest proportion of work force in the EU predicted to be impacted significantly by advances in technology over the coming decades – over 60% according to their estimates. On the other hand, Romanian companies such as UiPath, which specialises in robotic process automation, are showcased as innovative initiatives which will change the nature of jobs in the future.
The impact of robotisation on work is also an issue on the Green Party agenda, according to its Secretary General Silviu Dumitru. Since becoming an EU member 10 years ago, a large part of the Romanian economy has evolved around pleasing foreign companies that have opened production factories, call-centres, customer-support centres, and other businesses, benefitting from cheap labour. As some of these companies begin to innovate, the process of automation will undoubtedly bring to life a debate around jobs, as workers will rightfully fear being replaced by robots. According to Silviu Dumitru, in the absence of a national policy consensus on the topic, the ethical discussion on robotisation and the necessary rules for control and responsibility ought to be dealt with on the EU level, as other Member States, who are leading the innovation in this field, will have a higher stake in the debate, and will thus take decisions that can be of benefit for Romania as well.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in Germany?
The introduction of robots, especially in automotive production, plays an important role in Germany. Federal Minister of transport and digital infrastructure Alexander Dobrindt set up an ethics commission on automated driving which presented its report in June 2016. This panel of scientists and legal experts has developed 20 guidelines for the programming of automated driving systems. If an accident cannot be avoided, human safety must take precedence over animals or property. The software of the car must try to avoid a collision altogether. If that is not possible, it should take the action that does least harm to people. The report also recognises that some decisions could be too morally ambiguous for the software to resolve. In these cases, the ultimate decision and responsibility, at least for now, must be with the human sitting in the driver’s seat, so control is swiftly transferred to them.
The Charter of Digital Fundamental Rights of the European Union, presented in December 2016, is another policy initiative that covers amongst other things questions of robotics and AI. The Charter is an initiative of internet activists, politicians, scientists, writers, journalists, and civil rights activists, mainly from Germany and under the umbrella of the Zeit Foundation. The initiators demand a general and legally binding written charter that lays down the fundamental rights in the digital world at European level. For instance, in its first article, the Charter acknowledges the new threats to human dignity in the form of “artificial intelligence [….] robotics and man-machine merging”. Article 8 is completely dedicated to Artificial Intelligence.
Robert Habeck, Green state minister for energy, agriculture, environment, nature, and digitisation in Schleswig-Holstein, calls for a thorough discussion on the ethical and moral challenges of digitisation to our society. He emphasises that it is our decision as to what power and influence we have to give machines over our lives and for what purpose. Furthermore, the Greens in Germany organise a yearly congress dedicated to internet politics. The last congress took place in autumn 2016 and covered questions of ethics in the digital society. There has also been a workshop on Robots, Ethics and Power at this event.
The Greens are aware of the fact that robotics and AI both hold promise and peril. Discussions like the one during the congress on net politics are aiming to equip the party with sufficient understanding to reach an informed decision on such transformative technologies. Developing a position in our political family and a proper consideration of the issue will provide sound foundations for these technological developments.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in the Czech Republic?
In my opinion, the state of the public and political debate on robotics in our country is not very good; and far from sufficient. As the OECD has recently pointed out, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are among the most vulnerable countries regarding the automation of work. It has been estimated that up to 40% of our jobs are endangered. This estimation makes sense, since almost 50% of our economy is based on industry, making us more dependent on it than neighbouring Germany. About 1.45 million people – that is a third of the Czech labour force – work in industry. Unfortunately, the reaction of our media and politicians stands in sharp contrast with this dangerous prospect.
The mainstream media started to deal with the question of automation only recently. Most of our major political parties have also ignored it. They are focused more on questions of immigration and national identity. Their reactions to automation often oscillate between public denial and excessive optimism – in contrast with the public debate in Western Europe.
Politicians, experts, and economists usually claim that robotics would create (probably through “the invisible hand of market”) new and more skilled jobs. However, for now it looks like we are not ready for such a change, in large part because our educational system is heavily underfunded to deal with such a challenge.
The Green party, together with the Czech pirate party and the Czech social democrats, are aware of the problem of automation. According to their programme, the Greens want to work on measures such as transition towards shorter working weeks, taxation of robots, and the introduction of an unconditional basic income. As they stated, “It is necessary to prepare ourselves for the possible situation that a lot of workers, who would lose their jobs due to new technologies won’t be absorbed by the job market.” It is good to see that at least someone wants to deal with the problem of automation, but, unfortunately, it seems like the debate is still only just starting – even in the Green party.
In my opinion, older people especially will be hit hard by the developments, as many of them won’t be able to re-educate themselves in a way that would make them proficient users of new technologies – or at least it would require a lots of effort from them. Moreover, in a worse scenario, automation could even lead to the creation of a new, superfluous labour force. In order to prevent this, we would need more political action as well as investment into education and the welfare state.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in Spain?
Generally speaking, at present there is no deep and concrete public debate about the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and the use of robotics or AI in Spain. In somecircumstances, some journalists working for small and left-oriented newspapers have put some efforts to bring the debate of the Fourth Industrial Revolution closer to the citizens – but mainstream publications and politicians have not followed suit.
The two biggest trade unions in Spain – the General Union of Workers (UGT) and the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) – are fully aware of the consequences that the evolution of robotics and artificial intelligence might have on the labour market in the near future. They haven’t, however, developed a coherent and comprehensive approach yet, and therefore haven’t brought the debate to the general public. In fact, they have expressed differing views on regulating digital activities: while UGT is proposing to impose new taxes on robots, CCOO is against this approach in principle as, according to them, it could have negative effects for those companies that are willing to incorporate new technologies in their production system.
Overall, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not considered to be a political priority for the different political groups or social actors. So far, only the Socialist Party (PSOE) is starting to internally give some relevance to this issue, with the economist Manuel Escudero leading the process. In May 2017, the PSOE presented a motion for resolution in the Spanish Congress calling for a governmental strategy on industrial policy, including robotisation and AI. This motion specifically called for a deep discussion on the challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution might bring.
The Spanish Green parties (EQUO and the Initiative for Catalonia Greens – ICV) have not adopted any comprehensive or official position yet, and they have so far touched upon these issues only indirectly when covering other topics (such as the future of the labour market).
However, the parliamentary group ‘Unidos Podemos’ – of which EQUO is part – has recently launched a Working Group on Robotisation, with EQUO MP Rosa Martínez among its members. She will mainly focus on the ways in which the technological revolution might be shaped by the scarcity of materials, which could act as a physical limit to the production of new devices. She will also pay special attention to the gender gap in the access to technologies: while access to technology appears to be gender neutral, it can have an impact on women’s abilities to start a career in IT– which might also have an influence on the way technology is conceived – and overall, on job opportunities for women. Moreover, EQUO MEP Florent Marcellesi is currently contributing to fund the research project ‘The Eco-social Vision of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ carried out by Green thinktank EcoPolitica.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in the Netherlands?
It is difficult to comment on the state of the public debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in the country, as there are too many publics, think-tanks, for a, and platforms, and too few stable connections between them. Suffice it to say that existing knowledge is diverse and fragmented – not because of a lack of concern but because of an overdose of it.
Hence there are many voices that deal with robotics, but none is authoritative and experts’ opinions tend to differ among themselves. The minimal consensus is that robots will steal jobs: not only blue-collar jobs but also white-collar ones.
Some experts are optimistic about the possibility of creating new jobs to replace the old ones. Others are more pessimistic. Moreover, there are also experts, who are optimistic about the long-term effects, but worried about the short-term havoc that the introduction of robots and artificial intelligence will unavoidably create. We now know from empirical studies that when men and women lose their jobs in one field of work, it is not at all easy to re-employ them in another. Many people will probably be permanently thrown out of the workforce.
What we can glean from the discussion is that robots and AI have the potential to do a lot of good, but only if the losers get compensated and society as a whole has a chance to benefit. We also need to ask a set of questions: Who owns the robots? Who reaps the rewards? How can the new divisions of labour between humans and intelligent machines be fitted into a better and richer conception of the good life? These are some of the issues that the debate should be about.
Issues of robotics and AI are only just being discussed. Hence the Greens’ positions and proposals are still very much rudimentary, and subject to debate. A common goal is to use artificial intelligence and ‘the internet of things’ to make everything ‘smart’: from smart cities to smart buildings, and from smart factories to smart agriculture. How to get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ is, however, very much up for grabs.
One issue is scale. For some, “small is beautiful”, whilst others prefer to think in terms of large infrastructural projects. Sometimes these approaches will clash. Another issue is time. According to many, the time horizon within which we can act to save the planet is progressively becoming smaller. Some believe it is therefore better to circumvent politics, and act through the courts in order to save whatever can be saved, others still put their faith in changing public opinion through democratic means, while still others tend to follow the route of civil disobedience.
A third issue is cost. Is it better to show that robots and AI can transform ‘costs’ into ‘credits’ through the creation of a better and more leisurely society for most of us? Or is it more honest to acknowledge that avoiding further climate change will be burdensome, in spite of the robots, and that the best we can do is share the pain?
In all of these cases we can see that the issue is not robotics and AI by itself but the manner in which technological improvements are embedded in social relations, institutions, and realistic conceptions of the good life – a life that is good for us, but also for the planet.
What is the state of the public and political debate on robotics and artificial intelligence in Poland?
Robotics and artificial intelligence are hardly a political topic in Poland, even though many of the components of what may be otherwise called ‘robotisation’ are. They are dispersed and discussed under different labels, from defence (drones) through intellectual property (algorithms) to fair competition and workers’ rights (‘Uberisation’). When tackled as such, they quite often fall into the department of curiosities.
Within civil society, arguably the most active in tackling some of the robotisation challenges is the Panoptykon Foundation, whose mission is to the protect human rights in a ‘surveillance society’. Panoptykon calls for regulations on drones, both as military equipment and as personal gadgets, perceiving them as a threat to the right to privacy. The foundation has also been strongly objecting against the “profiling of the unemployed”, a government policy initiated in 2014 which uses algorithms to define how promising (or ‘hopeless’) the situation of an unemployed person is and to determine their further treatment.
In 2017, Polish cities witnessed protests of taxi drivers against the expansion of Uber. Values such as consumer convenience, fair competition, and workers’ rights were mentioned in the debate, but hardly robotisation. The political class in Poland tends to be supportive of the concept of deregulation and opening up different professions, so its members are also positive about Uber, with proper taxation (or rather the lack thereof) being the only issue of concern for them.
And finally, both the government and the opposition have repeatedly accused the other side of distorting the public debate by using bots in political campaigns. My bet is this will long remain the most prominent reference to the challenges of robotisation in Poland’s political life.
The Green Party is, as of 2017, the only political party in Poland that supports the introduction of a Universal Basic Income. In some local branches, there are discussions about including local basic income experiments as part of Green policy platforms in the upcoming municipal elections (scheduled for the autumn of 2018). However, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is for the Greens, like for the broader UBI-movement in Poland, more of a tool to achieve social justice and environmental sustainability, with the issues of robotisation only playing the second fiddle. In September 2017, the Party Congress adopted the policy of a 30-hour working week as an effort to improve workers’ rights, strike a better work-life balance and find an answer to the challenges of robotisation.
Polish Greens have been also involved in campaigns waged by social movements and civil society actors, such as the campaign to overthrow the government’s patent directive in 2004 and 2005, or actions against the profiling of the unemployed more recently.