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Last Updated: Friday, 9 March 2007, 14:43 GMT
The ethical dilemmas of robotics
Researcher gazes at a robot

If the idea of robot ethics sounds like something out of science fiction, think again, writes Dylan Evans.

Scientists are already beginning to think seriously about the new ethical problems posed by current developments in robotics.

This week, experts in South Korea said they were drawing up an ethical code to prevent humans abusing robots, and vice versa. And, a group of leading roboticists called the European Robotics Network (Euron) has even started lobbying governments for legislation.

At the top of their list of concerns is safety. Robots were once confined to specialist applications in industry and the military, where users received extensive training on their use, but they are increasingly being used by ordinary people.

Robot vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers are already in many homes, and robotic toys are increasingly popular with children.

As these robots become more intelligent, it will become harder to decide who is responsible if they injure someone. Is the designer to blame, or the user, or the robot itself?


Software robots - basically, just complicated computer programmes - already make important financial decisions. Whose fault is it if they make a bad investment?

Old-fashioned robot toy
Robots have become a lot more intelligent over the decades
Isaac Asimov was already thinking about these problems back in the 1940s, when he developed his famous "three laws of robotics".

He argued that intelligent robots should all be programmed to obey the following three laws:

  • A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm

  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law

  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law
These three laws might seem like a good way to keep robots from harming people. But to a roboticist they pose more problems than they solve. In fact, programming a real robot to follow the three laws would itself be very difficult.

For a start, the robot would need to be able to tell humans apart from similar-looking things such as chimpanzees, statues and humanoid robots.

This may be easy for us humans, but it is a very hard problem for robots, as anyone working in machine vision will tell you.

Robot 'rights'

Similar problems arise with rule two, as the robot would have to be capable of telling an order apart from a casual request, which would involve more research in the field of natural language processing.

Nasa's Robonaut, Eric Ishii Eckhardt
Nasa's Robotnaut is designed to work on Mars
Asimov's three laws only address the problem of making robots safe, so even if we could find a way to program robots to follow them, other problems could arise if robots became sentient.

If robots can feel pain, should they be granted certain rights? If robots develop emotions, as some experts think they will, should they be allowed to marry humans? Should they be allowed to own property?

These questions might sound far-fetched, but debates over animal rights would have seemed equally far-fetched to many people just a few decades ago. Now, however, such questions are part of mainstream public debate.

And the technology is progressing so fast that it is probably wise to start addressing the issues now.

One area of robotics that raises some difficult ethical questions, and which is already developing rapidly, is the field of emotional robotics.

More pressing moral questions are already being raised by the increasing use of robots in the military
This is the attempt to endow robots with the ability to recognise human expressions of emotion, and to engage in behaviour that humans readily perceive as emotional. Humanoid heads with expressive features have become alarmingly lifelike.

David Hanson, an American scientist who once worked for Disney, has developed a novel form of artificial skin that bunches and wrinkles just like human skin, and the robot heads he covers in this can smile, frown, and grimace in very human-like ways.

These robots are specifically designed to encourage human beings to form emotional attachments to them. From a commercial point of view, this is a perfectly legitimate way of increasing sales. But the ethics of robot-human interaction are more murky.

David Hanson's K bot, AAAS 2003
David Hanson's K bot can mimic human expressions

Jaron Lanier, an internet pioneer, has warned of the dangers such technology poses to our sense of our own humanity. If we see machines as increasingly human-like, will we come to see ourselves as more machine-like?

Lanier talks of the dangers of "widening the moral circle" too much.

If we grant rights to more and more entities besides ourselves, will we dilute our sense of our own specialness?

This kind of speculation may miss the point, however. More pressing moral questions are already being raised by the increasing use of robots in the military.

The US military plans to have a fifth of its combat units fully automated by the year 2020. Asimov's laws don't apply to machines which are designed to harm people. When an army can strike at an enemy with no risk to lives on its own side, it may be less scrupulous in using force.

If we are to provide intelligent answers to the moral and legal questions raised by the developments in robotics, lawyers and ethicists will have to work closely alongside the engineers and scientists developing the technology. And that, of course, will be a challenge in itself.

Dylan Evans is an independent scientist and writer

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This is a very intersting subject, it is true that if we progress to a stage where we can't tell the differance (if any) between a Human and a Humanoid then we will reach a point where human life will be seen as cheap and we will lose any sense of self-importance. We will eventually reach a stage where humanoids are seen as more important than to general industry than humans, that's when the real problem occurs.
Alex Campanella, Guernsey, Channel Islands

Instead of worrying ourselves about the hypothetical rights of future groups of machines that may or may not be taken advantage of and oppressed, it might behove those of us that are interested in equality and fairness to begin with groups that exist today that have suffered from hundreds of years of oppression; namely women, Gays and Lesbians, people of color, workers, Jews and Muslims etc. Possibly once these groups have attained a modicum of equality and respect, then we might decide to tackle these same issues with non-humans such as animals and robots. But let us please keep our priorities straight.
Blake Wilkinson, Madrid, Spain

I agree with forming a well written limit in adding capabilities to a human like robots. This may, ultimately end up in harming the human beings. Being an Artificial Intelligent based system, robots will be able to create new rules infering from the existing rules. No human being can predict the rule which an AI based robot will create after a certain period of time. So it is always better to take prevention if curing is more painful or impossible.
sanoop, Bangalore, india

Although its probably a premature discussion today, widening the circle of what it is to be human will demote the "specialness" of being human as Lanier mentions, but maybe that is no bad thing. This demotion has has been going on for several hundred years as humans have gradually realised that they are nothing more than intelligent animals made of the same atoms as everything else. Living in a world, were we once thought was the center of the universe but as we now know, reside on a planet around an average sun in an average galaxy, one of billions. I think humanity will be better species when we realize that we are not as special as we once thought.
Peter Langboard, Bristol

Asimov did not so much propose the robotic laws, he put them in a story taking place in a future setting. He put them in as a plausible system in a plausible setting. He often laughed at thought that some considered him "the father of robotics" for a few lines in a science fiction story. He clearly told others that he was an author, not a scientist. He gladly yielded the world of science to those trained in it disciplines. Yes, his "laws" set a high standard. Reading his works also shows he could see some of the pitfalls and loopholes such rules would form. We should be careful about ascribing "humanness" to any form of machinery. Though they may become increasingly sentient through artificial intelligence -- that does not make them human. It is kind of like remembering the line between reality and what you see on television or in the cinema.
Craig, Dallas, US

How close are we to the stage in "robotology" where the robot can perform tasks they have not been programmed to perform or tasks they have not been ordered to perform? If we are not there, what, then, is the difference between a robot and a man in a robot suit?
Johanne, Guildford, Surrey

Ridiculous! While the greater part of humanity is still grappling with stone age mythological beliefs in gods, heaven, hell etc. we now have a clique whom believe that we have matured to the level where robots are to be given human rights? How pathetic. We still need to look at the rights of real living things such as other humans and OTHER animals on our planet.
Albert Schultz, Stockholm, Sweden

Surely we should actually be looking closer at the moral issues of developing robots to this extent at all. The whole artical is about ethics and yet you refer to the US military having plans of using robot forces to go to war. Surely a robotic force blowing up and killing people raises a more ethical arguement than how we treat what is effectively a clever piece of software and some nuts and bolts. Should we start debating rights for cars, microwaves and stereos? Nice side track to real issues of the immorality of some of the other money making issues going on in the world.
Barry Aldridge, Leicester, UK

This item is totally out of place in the current context of our time, we need to get the rules right for all creatures in our bubble called Earth - not just the interaction between robots and people: Shame all creatures don't have an ethical code to protect their rights - like - I am a gorilla and I live in the jungle, humans must not harm the habitat of other creatures and must ensure their actions do not directly or indirectly lead to the abuse or decline of another species or habitat. This of course will apply both ways and allow the judgement of cases when gorillas decide to invade the cities and run amok, start killing humans and destroying their habitat.
Chris Barron, Amsterdam Netherlands

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