Ethics Blog

Robot ethics

Filippo Santoni de Sio
19 Apr 2017, 09:04

The robotic revolution brings also new big ethical challenges. A decade or so, the term “robot ethics” was coined to describe the effort of creating a systematic reflection on the principles which should guide the design, development and employment of intelligent machines. There is some disagreement about “what we should want from a robot ethics”, with some claiming that we should (mainly) work on embedding some form of morality into intelligent machines, that is “teaching robots right and wrong”, and others going as far as claiming that we should (also) consider the ethics of how we should treat robots; however, in the short run it is advisable to see robot ethics mainly as the reflection of the duties, rights, virtues of the human beings designing, developing and using robots; in a slogan: robot ethics should mainly focus on the humans behind the robots. In this sense robot ethics may be seen as a specific chapter of the general framework of Responsible Innovation.

In fact there are at least as many robot ethics challenges as many kinds of robots, insofar as each (kind of) robot may raise different questions about the moral, social, and legal acceptability of its design and use. Just to give an illustrative and largely incomplete list of questions: Under which conditions is it OK to use intelligent machines in the healthcare domain? How to make sure that the deployment of robots in industry does not negatively affect the quality of life of humans? How may we design robots the do not violate human rights and do not create “responsibility gaps”, for instance in in military operations and in road traffic? How can we guide the introduction of drones in society without creating unwanted threats to privacy?  

While it is impossible to have a one-size-fits-all answer to these robo-ethical question, following the ideals of Responsible Innovation and Value-Sensitive Design, two general methodological principles may be proposed. First, we need to move from a discipline-oriented to an interdisciplinary approach, that is engineers, social scientists, philosophers, lawyers and scholars from other relevant disciplines should actively engage in collaborative research projects. Secondly, we should strive to make ethical reflection pro-active, that is moving to a scenario where ethical constrains and aims become the very shapers of innovations instead of only fuelling political and academic discussions.


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