The fourth industrial revolution is undoubtedly on the bull’s eye of international and domestic economic discussions. To name just one of the major events that recently focused on the Industry 4.0 debate, one could mention the World Economic Forum 2016 Annual Meeting held in Davos on January 20-23 2016, together with its ambitious title: Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Indeed, starting from Germany’s Industrie 4.0, European governments have been trying to master the demanding challenges that the fourth industrial revolution brought, taking co-ordinate actions with companies and research institutions in order to attract investments and be more competitive in the global manufacturing scene.
At a glance, Industry 4.0 consists in the transformation – or rather the evolution – of industrial manufacturing based on the new possibilities offered by:
- The ability of machines, devices and sensors to connect and communicate with each other and analyze/process large amounts of data;
- The ability of information systems to create a virtual copy of the physical world by enriching digital plant models with sensor data;
- The ability of assistance systems to support humans by aggregating and visualizing information comprehensibly for making informed decisions and solving urgent problems on short notice;
- The ability of cyber physical systems to physically support humans by conducting a range of tasks that are unpleasant, too exhausting, or unsafe for humans;
- The ability of cyber physical systems to make decisions on their own and to perform their tasks as autonomous as possible.
After Germany, other European as well as oversea governments took actions aimed at exploiting, promoting and fueling with investments the research and development driven by such innovations. The United States started Manufacturing USA and France announced Industrie du Futur, to name just a few of such governmental programs.
Lastly, here in Italy, only a few days ago the Italian government announced the main features of its national Industria 4.0. The plan will make available public investments up to ten billion euro between 2017 and 2020, providing for tax incentives, as well as support for venture capital, ultra-broadband development, education and innovative research centers.
A number of legal issues are raised by the fourth industrial revolution.
- The first and – one would say – more obvious one, is related to data protection. Intelligent and multi-linked objects continuously collect, generate and transmit data (including personal data) that are processed and analyzed, often across State’s boundaries, by both automated and manual means. It is hence fundamental that data protection laws and regulations offer appropriate legal instruments to control and limit what can potentially become an uncontrolled and automated leakage of personal data.
- Property law is also at stake. In particular, in relation to non-personal data produced by machines and objects, ownership of such “products” seem to be mainly unregulated, with the exception of some specific instruments subject to database’s Moreover, moving towards more typical IP issues, it is clear that enhanced digitalization and connectivity both bring the risk of not being able to effectively keep trade and industrial secrets, as well as not being able to protect undisclosed know-how and business information.
- Labour law will have to find instruments in order to manage the potential job loss deriving from automatization and innovation.
- Product liability and, more in general, the legal framework of civil (and criminal) wrongs will have to face the fact that machines are more and more able to communicate, act and, in a way, “think” autonomously.
Can these challenges be tackled with existing legal instruments or do they require the adoption of tailor-made, brand new solutions?
The legal fields that have been mentioned here are, indeed, varied and do not allow one straightforward answer. Nevertheless, it may be worth noting that pushing for over-specific and unrealistically always-up-to-date legal instruments can be very risky. It can result, in fact, in a never-ending (but always late) frantic chase of fast-pacing technological developments, which can be more effectively tackled by adapting traditional flexible tools.
As it has been recently underlined by a study led by the European Parliament, “many of these issues have a cross-border and even pan-European element, e.g. migration of skilled labour, completing the digital single market and cybersecurity, cross-border research, standards etc”.
Perhaps, the success of the fourth industrial revolution from a legal point of view will largely depend on the ability and willingness to find harmonized and common solutions to global challenges, rather than create over-particular and specific new instruments. From this perspective, the new European Regulation on Data Protection can be seen as an encouraging legislative action providing for flexible but effective tools (such as, for example, data protection by design and data protection by default provisions) within the framework of the harmonizing strength of the European Regulation legal instrument.