The Robot Lawnmower Experiment

Behavioral Insights Germany and Saudi Arabia

Thought experiment: Your robot lawnmower crosses its perimeter wire, proceeds into your neighbor’s garden, and cuts a power cord. The flying sparks set the neighbor’s swing chair on fire. Who is responsible for the damage?

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications grow, we face a variety of unprecedented ethical dilemmas and uncertainties over their adoption. One of the most pressing challenges for policymakers, companies, and consumers is the issue of liability.

Together with the European Commission, Kantar Public, and CEPS, we investigated the attitudes of Europeans towards AI in terms of trust, social acceptance, and willingness to take up AI applications. To generate insights about the potential impact of different liability regimes on consumer behavior, we tested three regulatory alternatives in a hypothetical scenario like the lawnmower thought experiment above and observed how they affect their willingness to pay for AI products.

Turns out that Europeans, while generally open to AI applications, are skeptical about adopting them for concerns such as privacy, transparency, and the potential damage these products can cause. In the experiment, consumers generally behaved rationally and demonstrated that they are aware of the serious ambiguities in determining who is at fault in accidents where AI applications are involved. As such, their willingness to buy AI products is in tight harmony with economic self-interest. If the burden of proof lies on the user when damage is caused to self, the willingness to pay decreases. In the scenario of damage being caused to other parties, the more liable the users are, the less they are willing to pay.

The findings of our study informed a proposal for an AI liability Directive by the European Commission which can be found here:

Link to the full study: