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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2007, 13:46 GMT
Robotic age poses ethical dilemma
Researcher gazes at a robot

An ethical code to prevent humans abusing robots, and vice versa, is being drawn up by South Korea.

The Robot Ethics Charter will cover standards for users and manufacturers and will be released later in 2007.

It is being put together by a five member team of experts that includes futurists and a science fiction writer.

The South Korean government has identified robotics as a key economic driver and is pumping millions of dollars into research.

"The government plans to set ethical guidelines concerning the roles and functions of robots as robots are expected to develop strong intelligence in the near future," the ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said.

Ethical questions

South Korea is one of the world's most hi-tech societies.

Citizens enjoy some of the highest speed broadband connections in the world and have access to advanced mobile technology long before it hits western markets.

The government is also well known for its commitment to future technology.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey 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

A recent government report forecast that robots would routinely carry out surgery by 2018.

The Ministry of Information and Communication has also predicted that every South Korean household will have a robot by between 2015 and 2020.

In part, this is a response to the country's aging society and also an acknowledgement that the pace of development in robotics is accelerating.

The new charter is an attempt to set ground rules for this future.

"Imagine if some people treat androids as if the machines were their wives," Park Hye-Young of the ministry's robot team told the AFP news agency.

"Others may get addicted to interacting with them just as many internet users get hooked to the cyberworld."

Alien encounters

The new guidelines could reflect the three laws of robotics put forward by author Isaac Asimov in his short story Runaround in 1942, she said.

Key considerations would include ensuring human control over robots, protecting data acquired by robots and preventing illegal use.

Other bodies are also thinking about the robotic future. Last year a UK government study predicted that in the next 50 years robots could demand the same rights as human beings.

The European Robotics Research Network is also drawing up a set of guidelines on the use of robots.

This ethical roadmap has been assembled by researchers who believe that robotics will soon come under the same scrutiny as disciplines such as nuclear physics and Bioengineering.

A draft of the proposals said: "In the 21st Century humanity will coexist with the first alien intelligence we have ever come into contact with - robots.

"It will be an event rich in ethical, social and economic problems."

Their proposals are expected to be issued in Rome in April.

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