Industrial Revolution 4.0 witnesses convergence of technologies, disrupting the existing systems and posing unique socio-economic, governance and legal challenges. Robotics is a key technology player in Industrial Revolution 4.0 and its impact assessment demands a futuristic outlook to live through its complete evolution. Defining robots is not an easy task, owing largely due to lack of real consensus within the scientific community, and cultural patterns dividing the global population.1 For instance, an archaic definition was propounded by the Robot Institute of America in 1979, which viewed robots as “reprogrammable, multifunctional Machiavelli designed to move material, parts, tools or particular devices through adjustable programmed motions for the performance of many tasks.”2 This definition fails to capture the multitude of technological advancements that robotics imbibe in recent times3 and the variety of services that today’s robots offer, including factory production lines, self driven automobiles, military drones, remote surgery, surveillance, and mineral exploration in outer-space. Generally, a robot is understood as a physical machine which is aware of and able to act upon its surroundings and make decisions.
This bulletin aims at arguing a case for industrial automation through robotics and analyzing some of the potential legal issues surrounding it.
1. Basic technology and kinds
Generally, a robot is understood as a physical machine which is aware of and able to act upon its surroundings and make decisions. Robotics deals with design, construction, operation, and use of robots combined with computer systems for control, sensory feedback and information handling. Robotics was first used in a 1942 short story by Issac Asimov “Runaround”, where the 3 pronged law governing robots was stated, as discussed in para 3 below. The generic attributes involved in a robot include (i) specialized machine tools with flexibility that distinguishes them from fixed-purpose automation, (ii) ability to do repetitive tasks in controlled, ordered environment, (iii) mobility, and (iv) interface with work environment.4 These common attributes are achieved through (i) dynamic system modeling and analysis, (ii) feedback control, (iii) sensors and signal conditioning, (iv) actuators and power electronics, (v) hardware interfacing, and (vi) computer programming.5 While these general attributes will help understanding how different branches of engineering and computer science operate, robotics also engrains aspects of self-learning, up-gradation, and artificial intelligence. Dependent on its technology, design, functionality, ability to automate and upgrade, and self- learning, robots are classified into various kinds such as mobile, rolling, walking, stationary, autonomous, smart, remote-control, military, agricultural, industrial, humanoid, medical, and household robots.
2. Robotics and Industrial automation in India:
Industrial robotics is increasingly adopted by manufacturing units world-wide with the primary objective of achieving automation. For some countries like Japan and Germany, where industrial robotics has resulted in approximately 90% of production line automation, the primary driving forces have been the demographics comprising of more than 50% in the age bracket of 60 to 65 years, and high labor costs.6 In India, the automation levels are less in comparison to foreign jurisdictions because the cost arbitrage in labor trade off with robots is less due to availability of cheap labor.7 The Indian strategy is to attain “autonomation” i.e. process where industrial robots work alongside human beings. For instance, as of June 2015, an average of 30 to 40% automation was standard across all big automobile plants.8 The key benefits for manufacturing automation are:
- Cost reduction: Empirical studies evidence that labor is not effectively utilized in most manufacturing units, for instance, employing a number of workmen to shift constituent components from one process to another in assembly lines. Further, it is observed that human productivity diminishes faster with repetitive tasks, precisely why working shifts of few hours are statutorily mandated. Using industrial robots substantially reduce the time and cost in such processes. Additionally, a manufacturing unit will also save on labor and maintenance costs, which can be routed for skill enhancement of existing employees, and research and development activities.
- Increased production: Unlike human labor which can be used for limited work hours, robots can be put to work without any such limitation. Thus, the initial capital expenditure incurred in procuring robots can be recovered over the course of few years due to increased production and profitability.
- Quality enhancement: The quality of automated products is less prone to defects, which are more often than not due to human errors. Automating processes will also result in standardization as they eliminate operational deviations which are caused largely due to faulty human supervision.
- Skill enhancement: ITI technicians and diploma holders are generally required to perform repetitive tasks and underpaid, despite their potential for performing skilled work. Using industrial robots for such tasks will enable the company to have financial scope for skill enhancement and better utilization of human resource.
- Better industrial relations: Indian labor and industrial relation laws are archaic and more beneficial to the workmen. There is strong trade unionism in all industrial regions and the process of industrial dispute resolution is long-drawn and cumbersome. Strikes and frequent wage revision demands adversely affect the production output, which has a consequent ripple effect over the entire supply chain. These problems can be eliminated by switching to industrial robotics.
- Sustainability: Sustainability in terms of technology is the ability to develop and implement such technological methods, which are self-sustaining, without jeopardizing the potential for future generation to meet their needs.9 The advantages of industrial robotics per se advocate the case for seamless and efficient manufacturing, which will make manufacturing units more sustainable. Robots can be programmed and re- programmed in a manner that enables desired update, self-enhancement, and foster sustainability by achieving and adapting new tasks, and reducing redundancy.
- Waste management: Industrial robotics will contribute towards economic utilization of materials, help in monitoring safety requirements, reduce waste generation due to defaults and quality errors, minimize industrial hazards by predicting dysfunctionalities and facilitate monitoring environmental parameters for effluent and waste discharge.
3. Legal maze:
Asimov’s 3 laws though devised in the context of a science fiction, have been debated and delved into as the genesis of law on robots. It states that a robot:
- may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
- must obey the orders given by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law; and
- must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the above two principles.
He also added a superseding rule which states that “a robot may not harm humanity, or by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” Asimov’s laws can be regarded as core guidelines for regulating man machine interface, but will not address the complex issues which arise thereof. For instance, defence robots are programmed to combat causing harm to human beings, surveillance drones are equipped to breach privacy, and an industrial robot impacts the livelihood of human beings. While the European Union Parliament is deliberating on directive guidelines for regulating robots10 and South Korea has rolled out code for roboethics,11 India has no specific law on robotics. With advancements in robotics, it is time to consider whether existing laws will suffice or a new law is required. In the following paragraphs, 2 selective issues are discussed for assessing this question.
- Human unemployment: Using industrial robots shall result in retrenchment of workmen,12 mostly those who are employed in performing repetitive tasks. Retrenchment is defined as termination of workman’s services for any reason whatsoever, except termination due to disciplinary action, retirement, non-renewal of employment duration and continued ill- health.13 The Industrial Disputes Act (“ID Act”) provides the procedure for retrenching workmen by providing notice and retrenchment compensation. This provision can be resorted for downsizing workforce and replacing them by industrial robots.
However, the difficulty may be encountered when the employer desires to hire workmen at any time after retrenchment as the ID Act obligates first offer to the retrenched workmen. Procuring robots to cover for retrenched workmen may lead to industrial disputes and raise questions regarding the nature of relationship between the employer and the robot. Can a robot with self-learning abilities, predictive technology, and artificial intelligence be regarded solely as a machine or a legal person (like corporations), and whether the relationship is one that of contract of service are bound to arise in such disputes. Creating a legal personality for robot will also raise questions regarding rights and duties of robots, and this can strike at the very purpose for which robots are used. These questions may not find plausible and reasonable responses in existing jurisprudence and hence, it is important that thorough deliberations are initiated in these aspects. Simultaneously, it is also imperative that policy changes are adopted to accommodate alternate job creation. This will call for a drive to ensure that larger percentage of the workforce is equipped with enhanced industrial skills and training, indigenous manufacturing is incentivized, entrepreneurship and SMEs are promoted, and innovation is bolstered.
- Liability for damages: Default in robotic software and hardware can lead to unwanted results, causing certain level of damage, and raising questions on civil as well as criminal liability. For instance, in 2015, a 22 year workman was killed at a Volkswagen car factory in Germany when a robotic arm grabbed and crushed him against a metal plate.14 The liability puzzle can be severely complicated when industrial robots are self-learning, have abilities to process data through sensors, and are reliant on artificial intelligence.
Assume a scenario where industrial self-learning robots are hired on lease from a robot manufacturer. The robot under prior leases may have been exposed to a variety of data and behavioral patterns, which may cause default when put to a new environment. The exact nature and magnitude of error that may be caused cannot be ascertained. There is also a possibility that re-programming does not fully address the risks that it poses to the industrial process and safety. In such a scenario, it will be difficult to affix liability. Can the robot manufacturer be held liable since it has ownership, or can the lessee be held liable as it controlled the robot’s functioning at the time of default? It will also be an ordeal to assess the exact cause of action in such matters. The existing jurisprudence on vicarious liability (such as principal agent) and strict liability are subject to the guiding principle of reasonableness, which necessarily boils down to determining whether the consequences could be reasonably foreseen. These principles will fall short as robotics is a progressive science and the direct and ancillary damage that ensues due to technology failure or error cannot be foreseen and predicted. Does this imply that a concept of absolute liability as is attributed to manufacturers dealing with inherently hazardous or dangerous substances should be adopted when dealing with robots? Similar uncertainty will arise in determining whether users can opt for insurance schemes to seek indemnification for robot’s action.
Furthermore, it is anticipated that in near future, the underlying software and hardware for industrial robots will be open source, in which case it will be reasonable to expect auto update features like a Microsoft product. This will involve multiple players such as designers, algorithm writers, hardware manufacturers, and assemblers. Hence, identifying the exact nature of error, enforcing warranty protections and affixing liability on recognized principles or product liability will involve complex litigation.
Each country’s legal system on robots will be different as it will need to factor the stage of robotics prevalent and the manner in which robots are perceived by the society and polity. A futuristic and forward looking vision is specifically important for India as robotics is still novel and its impact and consequences are yet to unfold. Developed jurisdictions have already started promulgating separate set of legal and ethical codes for regulating robots. The approach has been to anticipate the impact that robots can have on human kind in the coming two decades. The deliberations involve all stakeholders and the objective is to devise laws which not only promote robotics, but also balances it with the best interests of humanity. India needs to follow suit, failing which it will have to replicate foreign regulations that can stifle the promises that fourth industrial revolution beholds.
- For instance, while US is more open to a transhumant experience (as can be provided by cyborgs), European Union is more inclined in restricting the robot’s role to human driven machines
- Refer Vikram Kapila (Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering, New York University), “Introduction to Robots” at page 3 available at http://engineering.nyu.edu/mechatronics/smart/pdf/Intro2Robotics.pdf (last accessed on July 6, 2017)
- Robotics is capable of creating “sentient robots” which are capable of replicating human responses based on emotional quotient; for instance, Bina 48 (Break though Intelligence via Neural Architecture) is a humanoid with functional woman’s face and has a digital mind that enables conversation with other human beings, often involving emotions and feelings
- Refer “Awareness in the fields of Robotics” available at http://www.civilserviceindia.com/subject/General- Studies/notes/awareness-in-the-fields-of-robotics.html (last accessed on July 6, 2017)
- Refer “Robots may help defuse demographic time bomb in Germany, Japan” available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-29/robots-may-help-defuse-demographic-time-bomb-in- japan-germany (last accessed on July 6, 2017)
- Having said that, it is surprising to see that China which has similar labor advantage is increasingly shifting to 100% automation because it strongly believes that automation will boost production, quality, improvise skills and boost the economy
- This is based on interview of major auto companies such as Ford, Volkswagen, Maruti Suzuki, Tata Motors and others who have established manufacturing units in Sanand, Pune and Chennai. For instance, Volkswagen factory in Pune has 30% automation and the products manufactured are fit for exports across Asia, Africa and North America; refer “Robots rising in auto factories but no labor replacement yet” available at http://www.business- standard.com/article/companies/robots-rising-in-auto-factories-but-no-labour-replacement-yet- 115060600030_1.html (last accessed on July 6, 2017)
- J. Ogbemhe, K. Mpofu & N.S Tlale, “Achieving Sustainability in Manufacturing Using Robotic Methodologies”, Procedia Manufacturing 8 (2017) 440-446 available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351978917300628 (last accessed on July 6, 2017)
- European Civil Law Rules in Robotics, October 2016 available at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/571379/IPOL_STU(2016)571379_EN.pdf (last accessed on July 6, 2017)
- Refer “South Korea devises ‘robot ethics charter’ available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1544936/S-Korea-devises-robot-ethics-charter.html (last accessed on July 6, 2017)
- S. 2(s) of the Industrial Disputes Act provides a wide definition of workman, which means any person (including an apprentice) employed in any industry to do any manual, skilled, unskilled, technical, operational, clerical or supervisory work, for hire or reward, irrespective whether the terms of employment are express or implied, with an exception of anyone employed in managerial, or administrative, or supervisory work and earning more than INR 10,000 per month.
- S. 2(oo) of the Industrial Disputes Act
- Refer “Robot kills man at Volkswagen plant in Germany” available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/11712513/Robot-kills-man-at-Volkswagen- plant-in-Germany.html (last accessed on July 6, 2017)