Top 10 Future Robot Ethics Issues

Suggested by SMS

It is easier to believe that we are closer to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than Philip K. Dick’s “Blade Runner” as the defense of human rights seems far more tangible than the protection of the rights of robots. It is also fair to point out that, as we haven’t been completely successful in our efforts to establish and enforce universal human rights, we could ask, “Shouldn’t we sort out human ethics before we begin work on a whole new raft of robot ethics?”

But the reality is that robots and electronic devices are becoming more autonomous every day. The need to regulate their use, behavior and the underlying principles that determine our attitudes towards them is becoming more pressing with each step that they are able to take away from the hands-on control of humans.

As a starting point for dealing with these issues some governments have already begun work on a charter of robot ethics and so, with the suggestions of these bodies in mind, these are the top-ten future electronic/robot ethics issues. They run from tenth in importance to the most significant and each deserves serious consideration in its own right.

10. Robots created for adult purposes should not be permitted to work with children

Somewhere between the domestic and industrial uses of robots, there is a space for robots that will serve adult only purposes. In the same way that the internet has vast potential for positive and productive contributions to our lives, yet it is mostly dedicated to disseminating the sort of content you would never show your mum, the technology of robotics may well produce devices and electronic entities that will have to be restricted to adult usage.

This raises huge ethical questions about the capacity of these machines to also work with children. If a robot was created in the genre of the “naughty-nanny”, could it serve a dual purpose of providing care and companionship for the children, while also being a plaything of the parent? Or does the parent have to invest twice?

The waste of resources is contrary to the whole premise of creating occupational and financial savings to the owner. Yet, in many countries, humans who wish to work with children must pass a series of assessments to show that they are fit to do so. It is obvious that the safety of the child must take precedence over any other consideration.

However, a further concern that this division of labor arouses is the creation of a subculture of “naughty-robots”. As technology continues to develop and fine-tune the design of these machines, does society want a class of robots that operate with a different set of moral standards to most of society?

9. Robots should remain identifiable at all times

When we think of cars rolling off an assembly line, we automatically acknowledge that, apart from some superficial features, they are identical. For this reason, cars are fitted with number plates and vehicle identification numbers so the authorities can keep track of them. It makes sense then to apply the same principle to robots.

As machines with exceptionally greater power to have an impact on a community, robots, more so than cars, need to be readily identifiable. But before images of rogue Yul Brynner cowboy-robots rampage into your mind with all guns blazing, it’s probably worth noting that we are thinking more along the lines of a malfunctioning domestic cleaning unit that is trying to vacuum aisle twelve in the supermarket. Being able to identify it will mean that its warranty can be enacted and that it can be returned to its owner more easily.

However, as other ethical issues are discussed it must be considered that, as with most technological advances, there are always people who will misuse technology for their own advantage. Whether the intent is to protect society or the robot itself, being able to identify the robot is essential to the security of the community.

8. Robots should not leave the country without a permit

A worker on the docks always raised the suspicion of customs officials as he left on his bike each night. They were sure he was stealing something, but their searches and questioning revealed nothing they could pursue. That was until they realized that he arrived every morning on foot and left every night with a new bike.

This tale is an example of the potential dangers of allowing robots to move as chattel from one country to another. Issuing a passport to a robot carries with it an assumption of humanity. But without a permit, the autonomy of a robot would make it possible for unscrupulous traders to shift bus and plane loads of robots from one country to another without necessarily paying the required duties and levies.

A further concern is the capacity of the robot to carry information across borders without restriction. Portable devices, such as smartphones and external hard drives, can hold the personal details and financial dealings of thousands of people. Consider a more advanced form of information storage device that was mobile and could act autonomously. The potential for such machines to play a role in international identity theft and financial corruption is frightening. Regulation of the movement of such robots would go some way to securing against such activity.

7. A robot should not deceive a human being

Although this appears to be a commandment leveled at the robots, it is actually a direct instruction to programmers and designers. The capacity for deceit is present within the constraints of the technology. The setting of priorities for strategies and responses when the robot is faced with interrogation allows for the owner to be protected at the expense of the truth.

While robots are expected to be developed to have greater facial expression than Hymie from Get Smart, detecting nervousness or other tell-tale signs of deception in a robot would be much harder than in a human. Other incentives to provide truthful responses, such as appeals to conscience, would have little bearing on a robot as would threats of incarceration.

The greatest dilemma in determining truthfulness in a robot will remain the ability of the robot to understand the concept of truth. As truth is always painted from the point of view of the teller, a robot can only recall events from the information it is allowed to process. Requiring it to surmise or extrapolate may be well beyond its scope.

6. Robots should always be traceable

The desire for “traceability” is an understandable precaution in an industry that has the potential to grow at an exponential rate. As more sophisticated robots are able to perform more tasks with greater autonomy, the need to be able to account for their movements and actions is fundamental to maintaining control. The Standards of the European Union in this regard demand a “black-box” system of recording for such purposes.

Yet, such a means of accountability raises the ethical question of the robot’s right to privacy. In much the same way that humans object to closed circuit television and unauthorized audio recording, the robots could raise the argument that they are entitled to privacy at times in their lives.

Similarly, in situations where robots and humans interact, the recording of the meeting may well infringe on the human’s right to privacy. Obviously, an encounter with an adult entertainment robot could cause embarrassment should it be divulged through the traceability provision. But even dealings with robots designed for innocent financial transactions or standard communication functions could present unwarranted invasions of the privacy.

At some point, discerning robot from human will become difficult. Robots will become autonomous and functioning entities. Their right to privacy, if not for their own sake, will become vital in their dealings with humans. While it may be convenient to have complete traceability, there are many ethical hurdles to face before it can become appropriate.

5. The impact of robots on unemployment

The vision of robots relieving man of the mundane, repetitious and most menial tasks has always been high on the list of reasons to create the machines. But success in this endeavor carries with it some serious ethical concerns regarding the rights of workers, both human and robotic.

Workers in the developed world already face the hardship of unemployment when their jobs are out-sourced to a country that has a lower standard of living and significantly lower pay rates. As robots take on the unskilled jobs of the working class, the income and self-worth of these human workers will deteriorate. In the face of such social change, there is a real need for the government and employers to address the wellbeing of these unemployed workers.

Furthermore, the exploitation of the robot workers leads to the creation of a sub-class of the eternally struggling poor. Attitudes and motivations that arise from a community that has limitations on employment, finances and hope can lead to the growth of crime and a disregard for authority. As robot workers become more autonomous and human-compatible, the danger of establishing a robot “ghetto” will need to be addressed.

Similarly, the ethics behind effectively instituting slavery in the form of an entity being bonded to a company or human as chattel, may well evoke strong social reaction as the humanity of the robots becomes more recognizable.

While we may dream of the day when robots carry out all the boring jobs, leaving us time for leisure and luxury, the reality may be more difficult to accept. A purposeless life may well be soul destroying and, against a backdrop of pseudo slavery, the world may be a bleak reflection of our dreams.

4. A robot should never be deliberately damaged or destroyed

The Korean charter of rights for robots has many excellent offerings to the discussion of ethics relating to robots. One of the most obvious is the setting in law that the deliberate act of damaging or destroying a robot is an offence. While the law doesn’t go so far as to use language such as “kill”, “murder” or “assault”, there are a number of ethical aspects to this regulation.

Most obvious, and some would consider whimsical, is the rights of the robot. Animals are protected in many countries from cruelty, so why should a robot, which may have strong human features, not also be protected. Is killing a robot, which possesses a human form, not the same as murdering a person?

Obviously, as an offence against the robot, the answer must be “No”. The act of destroying a machine, no matter how much it looks like your Uncle Bob, is not depriving it of life. But, perhaps the greater concern is the intent. While no life is lost, the intent of the attacker was to stop an entity functioning. If they didn’t know that the victim was a robot, the intent was premeditated murder. Such behavior cannot be tolerated in a peace-loving society.

If, however, the aggressor did know that the victim was a machine, their crime is still one of willful damage. They have permanently deprived someone of their possession and so they have also effectively committed theft.

Even if the robot was their own property, the decision to damage or destroy it, either deliberately or through neglect, indicates that there is a significant issue relating to violence that must be addressed.

3. A robot should have the capacity to kill

Beyond the tedious tasks that we would like to allocate to robots, there are the distasteful and dirty jobs that we would rather not know about. These include government sanctioned acts of violence, such as war or police actions demanding the use of deadly force. But a vital aspect of these applications of robots is the autonomy of the machine in such circumstances.

Without bothering to enter into the science fiction realm of rogue robots in a killing frenzy, the issue of a robot’s authority to take life is fundamental to its fulfilling the roles of soldier or law enforcement officer. But giving a robot the power of life and death over a human could be construed as raising its status above that of the humans it encounters.

This further complicates the civil rights of robots and issues such as privacy and freedom of movement can become more involved discussions. It would seem contradictory that a robot could be limited in the expression of opinions, but given license to shoot someone.

It could be argued that the robot is simply a weapon and that, as gun simply enacts the process of firing when the trigger is squeezed, so the robot will only carry out the act of killing when commanded. However, the practicalities of having a human controller for every robot soldier or police officer could be unworkable.

The other option would be to extend the autonomy of the robot, allowing it to make value judgments and carry out actions on its own undertaking. Understandably, this produces a range of concerns including, the moral capacity of the robot, the legal responsibility for the machine and the safety precautions in the event of a software malfunction.

While society may deplore acts of violence and wish unburden its soldiers and law enforcement officers of such tasks, there are profound issues to be discussed before these roles can be relinquished to a robot.

2. Robots should be allowed to marry

While it may appear the stuff of bizarre websites or sensationalist television programming, the concept of a person marrying a robot, or two robots marrying each other, holds more concern than the derisive shaking of our heads would suggest. Aside from the sadness of the lonely person who can find no companionship more satisfying than that of a machine, there is the fact that marriage involves a commitment from two parties. Whether a robot has the capacity to make such a commitment is questionable.

Some celebrants and would-be robot-spouses argue that their robot fulfills all their needs and that formalizing the relationship is simply a public recognition of an otherwise private bond. However, the lack of free will on the part of the robot would suggest that it could not make any decision other than that directed by its owner. On this basis, one wonders how the purpose of the marriage certificate would differ from a purchase receipt.

In a passionate, but slightly whining, voice those pursuing such a union would explain that they want to share their lives and all they have with the intended partner. This strikes at the heart of a deeper issue than the provision of companionship for the desperately lonely, that is, the concept of property ownership.

If marriage is seen only as ritualistic reciting of promises and ignores the spiritual and legal connotations that are intrinsic to the sacrament, then a robot might be the ideal partner for the sake of the performance. However, as numerous governments around the world are even reluctant to recognize same-sex marriage between humans, the chances of their recognizing marriage involving an entity with no sex or, as Mork put it, interchangeable parts is minimal.

1. Robots should be able to own property

Underlying many of the ethical issues that confront the designers and programmers of robots is the definition of humanity. For all the discussions that argue the potential for robots to reason and learn independently of man, the most salient test of a robot’s rights as a human rests in a sadly capitalistic measure. That is, the ability to own property.

As a property owner a robot would have to be recognized by the legal machinations of the state. The robot would be liable for expenses and obligations associated with the property, as well as being entitled to profits and benefits arising from it. This would provide a status that would demand that the robot have voting rights in company dealings, in addition to the power to hire and fire workers, including humans.

This would allow the robot to enter into legally binding partnerships, such as businesses, trust funds and marriages. They would the right to carry out financial dealings, and presumably other dealings, in a private and respected manner. They would also have the right to protect their property by forceful means, which in some jurisdictions would include the right to kill.

Property ownership would also produce the ethical dilemma of a robot owning another robot. The ability to possess an entity of the same nature would produce a scenario not greatly unlike slavery. At that point, all robots would have to be granted legally human status.

The presence of robots in our society creates a multitude of ethical questions. Most of these will have logical and sensible answers. But as robots become more human-like in appearance, in the roles that they play and in their legal standing, many of the worst aspects of humanity, including prejudice, discrimination and envy will need to be revisited and defeated again.

In some regards, the more that robots remain in the image of their predecessor from Lost in Space and the more that they stay clunky and machine-like, the safer it will be for all of us.