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China's Future Workforce & Robotics Development

By Eugene Clark via

Jan 11, 2014 - China will depend upon advances in technology, especially in the field of robotics, to maintain its competitive economic edge, especially as its population ages and the size of its workforce declines.

The growth of robotics is also likely to bring about major societal changes, including reshaping the world of work, not only in manufacturing but in service sectors including education and health care. According to the International Federation of Robotics, China's demand for robots will increase from 26,000 to 35,000 through 2015, and is likely to increase dramatically thereafter.

If China is to achieve its goals in relation to robotics, then solutions must be not just technical. In addition, there are at least three other major challenges that must be overcome. The first is the need to achieve clarity and certainty with regard to the legal and ethical issues involved. For example, driverless cars are already available and have been legislated in several American states. However, ethical standards, product liability, agency, safety standards, insurance and other legal issues will need to be resolved so that people developing this industry will have enough certainty to risk the substantial investment required.

Among the legal issues that must be resolved are:

• Legal definition of "robot." The law will have to have a clear definition of what exactly is meant by "robot?" Just as cyber law had to depend upon extending traditional metaphors and analogies to contexts involving the Internet, so too appropriate legal metaphors must emerge which will allow government, courts and others to design the appropriate legal infrastructure that will provide the necessary guidance for this new industry to evolve.

• Balance. The law is about conflict and the need to balance competing interests. The design of legal rules that govern robotics will need to achieve the appropriate balance between encouraging innovation through robotics and related technologies and ensuring public safety, particularly in the context of autonomous robots.

• Agency issues. The law of agency is especially relevant to robotics and covers the legal principles governing the liability when one person acts on behalf of another. An example is a software-only system such as automated trading agents which have caused serious "flash crashes" in share markets in the United States.

• Responsibility. Given that robots will be acting autonomously or sometimes in partnership with a human, we will need to determine rules for placing ethical and legal responsibility with the appropriate party. This issue could get very tricky especially in relation to new generations of autonomous robots that are also equipped to learn in much the same way that humans do. Although it is in the realm of science fiction now, some argue that as robots assume more and more human qualities, we will have to even consider legal rights for robots.

• The rules governing robots will have to be adapted to widely varying contexts ranging from robots conducting interviews, dispensing advice, looking after patients, providing transport, looking after security needs and military usage. Different contexts may require different legal and practical considerations.

• Health, safety and employment law issues will need to be resolved as robots enter for example the world of work and encounter new environments outside of the laboratory and contexts in which they will interact with humans, sometimes in unexpected ways and with unexpected and/or unintended results.

• Regulatory and licensing issues raised by robots in the home, the office, in public spaces (e.g. roads), and in specialized environments such as hospitals.

• There will be privacy issues especially relating to robots that are collecting or using data in personally sensitive areas such as health care delivery and national security. Other privacy issues will come about as a result of robotic intrusions, e.g. drones spying on backyards and into houses where people would traditionally expect privacy.

• There will be intellectual property issues to be resolved, especially given the newness of the industry and its rapid growth and development in a competitive environment.

• Ethics. Where a robot is involved in a professional area such as medical diagnosis or other professional advice, there will be ethical and legal issues related to licensure, agency and scope of permitted activity to be resolved.

• Liability Given that a robot is a "product" there will be product liability and insurance issues to sort out. For example, what is the liability should a doctor deploy robotic surgery and a patient is severely injured by a mal-functioning robotic device. There has already been one such lawsuit in the United States.

• International issues. As the impact of robots goes across national borders there is likely to emerge the need for international agreement, an example being moves to restrict the use of drones.

The second major challenge to the advancement of robotics is the need to resolve related political and social issues. The impact of robotics will create winners and losers. Those groups who see their livelihoods threatened by robotics will resist the changes which affordable and widespread use of robots will bring. There is also a danger that advances in robotics will further increase the income disparities which are already wide and growing in China. At the very moment when more and more citizens are looking forward to joining a more prosperous middle class, robotics may take away that dream for some.

There will also be moral and ethical concerns as the distance and relationship between man and machine becomes increasingly blurred. Indeed, in "Love and Sex With Robots" (Harper Perennial), David Levy contends that by 2050, some people will even choose to marry robots. He submits that by then human like "android" robots will be serving as babysitters, health care facilitators and interacting with humans in new and imaginative ways that will lead to a redefinition of the relationship between robots and humans.

Finally, the thought of robots expanding exponentially will raise the spectre of an emotional hurdle to be overcome. While Japan seems to be exceptional in its positive attitude towards robotics, in other societies the rapid expansion of robotics is very threatening and gives rise to strong negative emotions. While computers in movies such as "Wall-E" and "R2-D2" conjure up positive reactions, Huey, Louie, and Dewie (from "Silent Running"), the gunslinger (from "Westworld", "The Terminator"), the replicant Roy Batty in "Blade Runner" and "Hal 9000" (from "2001: A Space Odyssey") portend a more ominous and threatening future in a future world where robots govern many aspects of our lives.

The robots are coming and their clanking and machine noises are getting louder. It is hoped that nations like China will be proactive in providing the legal, political and social infrastructure to enable these new industries to reach their full potential while also ensuring against abuses and dangers.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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