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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Robot ethics and bad workmen
Article Type: Editorial From: Industrial Robot: An International Journal, Volume 38, Issue 2
I was very interested to read of Professor Alan Winfield’s ideas regarding robot ethics (see News section “Robot Revolution”) and I fully agree with him that it will be impossible to implement Asimov’s three laws of robotics for the foreseeable future. I consider that his ideas for ethical roboticists are very laudable – but perhaps a tad optimistic.
I recently applied for a visa to a foreign country and on the application form there was the question “Have you ever committed an act of terrorism?”. I can only assume that very few people have ever answered “yes” and that the safety of the country concerned has not been greatly improved by its inclusion.
Why should robots or even roboticists be considered in any way different from say an oven and a cook? Or a CNC machine tool and a machinist? Or an environmental control system and a gardener in charge of acres of greenhouses?
The problem I have with any question of robot ethics is that those that comply are not the ones you need to worry about; while those that do not will operate with total disregard of any ethical code. You do not have to listen to much international news to discover that people are singularly unqualified for the task of ethical judgement.
This whole ethical problem is far from straightforward. Professor Winfield suggests that it is unethical for a roboticist to create a robot that gives the impression of having feelings or emotion. If this is a good guide, and it certainly seems very reasonable, then we have already broken it many times over and with the very best of intentions.
Take for example the Paro theraputic seal robot. This is a lovable bundle of white fur as described in the following from the Paro web site (www.parorobots.com):
PARO is an advanced interactive robot developed by AIST, a leading Japanese industrial automation pioneer. It allows the documented benefits of animal therapy to be administered to patients in environments such as hospitals and extended care facilities where live animals present treatment or logistical difficulties.
Paro has been found to reduce patient stress and their caregivers
Paro stimulates interaction between patients and caregivers
Paro has been shown to have a Psychological effect on patients, improving their relaxation and motivation
Paro improves the socialiazation of patients with each other and with caregivers
This robot is programmed to pretend to be a real animal and is apparently quite successful in this task. Anyone with a real pet animal will testify to the great pleasure that can be obtained from them. The real pet displays characteristics of affection that may in themselves only be natural traits partly programmed by us by their removal from their natural mother at an early age. So are pets wrong too?
In my view robots are just another form of technology and are neither ethical or unethical – it is simply the way that we use them that determines whether they are beneficial to us or not.
Mobile phones are another technological innovation – do they help stimulate the contact between people, or are their users choosing to interact with the technology rather than communicate with the people around them?
Such issues can be discussed to distraction; but whether mobile phones, robot seals, robot welders or even military robots are ethical or unethical depends not on the technology itself but on the intent of the person controlling them.
It is said that a bad workman blames his tools – we cannot blame technology if we use it unethically.