Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics

Edited by:
  • Patrick Lin,
  • Keith Abney &
  • George A. Bekey
MIT Press: 2011. 400 pp. $45, £31.95 9780262016667 | ISBN: 978-0-2620-1666-7

Fantastically complex technological systems now criss-cross Earth, harnessing nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, applied cognitive science and, of course, robotics. How do we regulate such systems? Adaptively, according to a book that considers the evolving and unpredictable nature of the robotics frontier.

Robot Ethics, edited by philosophers Patrick Lin and Keith Abney, and computer scientist George Bekey, is a timely round-up of sensible ethical and policy responses to advances in robot technology. The book provides an accessible introduction to a topic that becomes contentious when one considers the risks to humans, such as the potential failure of robotic cars. The development of cyborgs is another example — for some, these machines with both biological and artificial parts are as much cause for unease as for elation.

Military surveillance drones must be designed in accordance with laws governing warfare, such as the avoidance of civilian casualties. Credit: S. NELSON/WPN/PHOTOSHOT

The book's contributors address a wide spectrum of concerns: from robotics expert Noel Sharkey on military applications and philosopher Peter Asaro on the legal perspectives, to ethicists Jason Borenstein and Yvette Pearson on robotic carers in ageing societies. Robotics aimed at childcare, medicine, surgery and even recreation also get a look-in.

Several chapters touch on Isaac Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics', which first appeared in his 1942 science-fiction story Runaround, and still spark debate. The laws state that robots must not hurt humans, must obey humans and must protect themselves, and illustrate the underappreciated importance of science fiction as a visioning device for emerging technologies. The laws also serve to show how far we have come in thinking about the ethics of robotics — a good thing, given that Asimov's stories mainly highlighted the laws' inadequacy.

The time for ethical considerations is now — once the technologies are embedded, they will be much harder to change.

Roboticists are now integrating technology with humans in ways that challenge fundamental ethical and cultural ideas. As prosthetics become more powerful and computer–brain interfaces move ever closer to cyborg territory, the definition of what it means to be human becomes unpredictable in new ways. Yet as this book makes clear, ethics has not kept pace with complex techno-human systems, such as 'augmented cognition' networks that boost a person's capacity to handle multiple streams of incoming data. For example, who is responsible if an autonomous military robot kills a group of civilians? The manufacturer, the commander, the operator or the robot itself? The time for ethical considerations is now — once the technologies are embedded, they will be much harder to change.

The book touches on another hotly debated issue in robotics: military applications and their impacts. These include the operational, policy, governance and ethical implications of unmanned aerial vehicles or insect-sized mobile surveillance devices. Greater challenges will arise when such technologies migrate into civil society; imagine what divorce lawyers, or internal security organizations, could do with tiny mobile surveillance cyborgs.

Asimo is designed to aid people who lack mobility. Credit: T. YAMANAKA/AFP/GETTY

Robot Ethics succeeds as a stand-alone text, with its varied contributors striving for objectivity and avoiding hyperbole. The broad spread of applications discussed is key because the ethics differ depending on the use. Military robots, for instance, must be designed to obey the laws that govern warfare. Carer robots must be capable of interacting with patients, who may give them trust and even affection.

However, there are omissions. The lack of a contribution from robotics expert Ronald Arkin at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta is glaring, because several chapters cite and challenge his work on autonomous lethal military robots. A chapter summarizing the state of the technological art in robotics would have been valuable, so that a novice reader could distinguish between existing technologies — which raise concerns that might need to be addressed immediately — and hypothetical inventions.

Similarly useful would have been a summary of the underlying economic and cultural factors driving robotic technologies. That would help to distinguish likely scenarios from economically or politically impractical ones. For example, military robots are likely to be implemented because they save soldiers' lives. So outright bans on robots might be politically impractical, suggesting that regulation is more realistic.

By portraying robots as real-world experiments in ethics, Robot Ethics conveys an important lesson for our technological era: we must develop responses to emerging technologies in real time, rather than simply reacting to them using existing ethical frameworks.