In the technological context described today as the 4th Industrial Revolution, which is more than just a description of technology-driven change, we jurists are obliged to understand the phenomenon. First, understand it, define it and delimit it; then, explain it and analyze it; and finally, propose fair and equitable solutions, step by step, because this global concept encompasses multiple realities, each with its own characteristics and particular impact. Of particular complexity are the impacts of technologies on working life as a source of personal identity.

It is true that there is a common element or feature that concerns society in general, social scientists, and especially lawyers in different areas of research: that of the social dimension of this phenomenon and that of the necessary intergenerational responsibility, in particular the interrelationship between technological change, economic performance and employment.

“Robots have come to stay”

For some time now, studies, reports and analyses of the situation have been regularly provided by public and private, international, European and national institutions (OECD, ILO, WEF, EU, among others). In particular, and as far as Robotics is concerned, the specific scope of the industrial sector has been transferred, to try to fix the impact (when technologies are used to replicate in machines cognitive processes similar to human ones) on employment or human work, from the triple ethical, legal and socioeconomic perspective. In its configuration and definition; in the different models or forms of work, deeply altered today by automation or digitalization; and in the conditions in which the worker provides his services. From this double perspective, admitting that robots and AI systems are some of the great truly disruptive inventions of the digital environment and that robots “have come to stay”, we focus our study on Robotics, in particular, on Inclusive Robotics, thus contributing to the understanding of the phenomenon by reflecting on some of the questions it raises for the Law, especially for Labour and Social Security Law.

In the light of the studies carried out to date in the national and international context, any rigorous analysis undertaken must take as its starting point the opportunities and challenges in order to provide, with a certain degree of precision, the “regulatory” measures that could be devised in the short term to deal with the future. In this sense, the United Nations reminds us (Trade and Development Report, 2017; in particular, Chapter III, Robots, Industrialization and Inclusive Growth, p.60) The following is an excerpt from ‘This discussion shows that disruptive technologies always bring a mix of benefits and risks. But whatever the impacts, the final outcomes for employment and inclusiveness are shaped by policies’.

Problems or risks that influence the political and legal projection of Robotics The first, guiding public authorities to protect the introduction of robots in a socially responsible way, so that society perceives that they are necessary and useful to people and they accept them; The second, guiding those and the multiple groups with social and economic interests (what we can call stakeholders in Interactive Robotics, technological experts, business experts, experts in the ethical, legal and socioeconomic fields, users, and in particular the social partners, employers and workers’ representatives) to guide towards a legal regulation that takes into account not so much (or not only) the specific, intrinsic characteristics of the robots, but the type of problems that they pose.

In this project, agreeing on the need for rules that specify the impact of robotics on employment, the different starting positions around which the many studies and reports have been produced cannot be ignored; noting that there is no unanimous position on the form and scope of regulation. Perhaps because there is no common guidance on the ethical framework needed to meet the challenges posed by robotics and, consequently, on the rules (whether soft law or hard law) that should ensure transparency and accountability with regard to social and economic costs and benefits.

‘This discussion shows that disruptive technologies always bring a mix of benefits and risks. But whatever the impacts, the final outcomes for employment and inclusiveness are shaped by policies ’

Addressing a minimum regulatory framework will have to take into account not only the multiplicity of technological applications, but also the range of legal problems they generate and the difficulty of fitting them all into a uniform paradigm. The national reports of several countries, some in the general context of digitalization, others more specifically related to Artificial Intelligence, and others focused on Robotics in relation to AI (e.g., the Economic and Social Council in Spain; Italy, France, the United States, Great Britain and Japan), emphasize the interaction between robotics and humans and the social impact of this interaction by reminding us that “we are creating systems to help us; we are not creating life”.

For this reason, the answer to the questions of when the law should intervene, how to intervene and what form of regulation would be necessary, requires that we not only take into account the specificity of the context (in particular the different characteristics of robots, especially when they are equipped with AI systems), but above all identify precisely the significant challenges arising from the deep underlying problems.

In order for the law to take action in this regard, the problem and the challenges to be addressed need to be clearly defined, based on the set of common general principles of the European Union acquis (which help to build what has started to be called “full digital citizenship”). Today, the framework of the European Pillar of Social Rights pays particular attention to human capabilities. Those skills that are affected by robots and those that, although it may seem paradoxical, can be fostered by robots so that people can engage in activities that can be described as inherently human, i.e. those related to characteristics associated with human beings such as emotions, consciousness, reflection, abstract processing, personality and free will. The aim is to advance on the basis of what technology has called “the precautionary principle” applied to the freedom of scientific research and, beyond the rules of “technological neutrality” (which cannot become an end in itself), to apply the principle of socially and legally responsible technological innovation, which requires the implementation of orderly and fair measures, balanced and agreed upon by all the actors involved, within the framework of working relations and the social protection system.

“we are creating systems to help us; we are not creating life”

Robots, as “enablers” of people (so that individuals can engage in the development of human-inherent skills), whether CoBots or Inclusive Robots (sharing the characteristics of autonomy, corporeality, and physical and/or cognitive interaction with humans), can have a positive impact on human work and the labor market. So the vision has to be balanced techno-optimist, identifying some of the challenges and opportunities that robotization presents in the organization of the company and employment and in the labor/social rights linked to work. It is a matter of advancing not what robotics and AI can do, but what they should not do.

The effect of this disruptive technology on the organization of employment and on working conditions must be addressed in accordance with the reality of the transition period, seeking to rebalance the substitution effect with the collaboration or cooperation effect.

In this “realistic” perspective, the problems that the introduction of this technological innovation can generate in the short term cannot be hidden, including those affecting human working conditions: pressure on wages, particularly those of less qualified workers; the move to decentralised production; the reallocation of jobs and tasks, among others. And its projections in the social protection system, both in its income dimension and in its expenditure dimension, especially those arising from technological unemployment.

The solution cannot be approached through a fixed picture; there is no snapshot available that covers all sectors of economic activity equally; all types of jobs; all levels of qualification, all markets or all countries. So, apart from existing studies (and based on many of them, in particular, those that are dealt with from the EU), the evolution of robots in the world has to be analysed from a legal and economic perspective in order to draw the first conclusions on the behaviour of some countries. Subsequently, it should be verified whether the countries with the highest density of robots per worker are countries whose jobs are less likely to be replaced by automation and are more competitive. At the same time, a rigorous analysis must be made of the type of capacities and skills that will be in demand in the jobs planned for the coming years, in order to make a first approximation of the jobs that could be destroyed, but also, and this is essential, those that will be created.

María Yolanda Sánchez-Urán Azaña, she is the director of the Department of Labour Law and Social Security at the University Complutense of Madrid (Spain)

The role of labour jurists in the digital revolution