Thursday, July 27, 2006

The ethics of social robots

Skype conference and the question was, 'when will robots finally be here?'

To answer that. let's look at what just happened first ....

It's interactive: like the telephone and the telegraph (and unlike radio or television), people can overcome great distances to communicate with others almost instantaneously.

It's a mass medium: like radio and television (and unlike the telephone or fax), information can reach millions of people at the same time... fast!

It has been vilified as a powerful new tool for the devil, awash in porn, causing users to be addicted to hours each day during which they are away from their family and friends resulting in depression and loneliness for the individual user and further weakening neighborhood and community ties.

Whew ... but wait - there's more!

It has been hailed by western leader as the ultimate weapon in the battle against totalitarianism and tyranny and credited by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan with creating a 'new economy.'

It was denounced by the head of the Miss France committee as 'an uncontrolled medium where rumormongers, pedophiles, prostitutes, and criminals could go about their business with impunity' after it facilitated the worldwide spread of rumors that the reigning Miss France was, in fact, a man.

'I’m terrified by this type of media!' he/she said.

OK – we all know what I’m talking about but that's the human angle. I'm thinking about Robots today. What do youthink their opinion is?

Listen, electronic agents have been using this 'new medium' for 20 years – long before humans created a way to interface with the zeros and ones.

Why don't we ask them?

Social Robots (as opposed to industrial robots) will become increasingly important in our society, but, oddly enough, their social role remains unclear.

So, how do we define and enable robots to follow human social conventions?

Humans have all sorts of conventions that make interaction easier, including how to pass each other in hallways, how to go through doors and in and out of elevators and how to enter and wait in line.

There are several schools of thought looking at techniques that enable robots to use such social conventions by modifying their nominal behaviors. Eventually, one whould surmise, that robots would learn such conventions on their own.

Past discussions were all based on the 'Media Equation' - which explores how people treat computers as social actors. Now this is being applied to robots. But the Media Equation is too limited in that it studies human-robot interaction by focusing only on robot abuse.

But that is changing .... attitudes are changing. Humans are starting to be nice to robots - respecting them.

Robots have been important in our society. Now, robotic technologies that integrate information technology with physical embodiment are now robust enough to be deployed in industrial, institutional AND domestic settings.

The United Nations, in a recent robotics survey (PDF), identified personal service robots as having the highest expected growth rate over the next few years.

These robots will help the elderly, support humans in the house and improve communication between distant partners but we need research vehicles for the study of human-robot communication.

Why is clear enough. How these robots should behave and interact with humans remains largely unclear. When designing robots, we need to make judgments on what technologies to pursue, what systems to make and how to consider context. Robots in a human society? Or just 'society'?

Researchers and designers have only just begun to understand these critical issues of how to ‘design’ robots as social actors and how to 'train' robots to act within a society.

This is more than AI, high math and way more than appearance – it’s really about social class systems and strongly questions the inherent ‘ethics’ of technology. Should rules of social conduct apply to technology itself and the products of technology implementations?

Wow, that’s a big question.

The Media Equation started the discussion on how social norms apply to robots and at the basic level, robots often have an anthropomorphic embodiment and human-like behavior.

But what about the interaction - under what conditions should humans treat robots like social actors or even like humans? What happens when this social illusion shatters and we treat them again like machines that can be switched off, sold or torn apart without a bad consciousness?

Are robots punishable? Can 'killing' a robot be socially acceptable?

Ultimately, this discussion eventually leads to legal considerations of the status of robots in our society.

First studies around this theme are becoming available but thay take a very ‘non-human’ approach. To examine this borderline in human-robot interaction it is necessary to step far out from normal conduct (and I’m not talking about the Scientological view).

Logic would say that the next step is that robots must be designed and implemented so that they will be capable of performing legally binding actions (as electronic transactions do today). These advances necessitate a thorough treatment of their legal status and consequences.

But first we must demonstrate that these 'electronic agents' behave structurally similar to human agents. Then one needs to know how declarations of intention stated by robots are related to ordinary declarations of intention given by natural persons or legal entities and also how the actions of robots in this respect have to be classified under a national law.

But does this mean that robots, in the social context, must have a national citizenship and respect national laws over and above the very basic Three Laws of Robotics written by Isaac Asimov?

But then, if the ‘electronic person’ is a legal nationalized entity, what civil and 'robot rights' do they have?

As you see, we are not ready – the ethics of of this type of technology haven’t been discovered yet. There are so many questions that have to be answered and so many questions that haven't even been asked yet.

Time to begin.

They've started to build the robotic society already - but they forgot to set the rules.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention Robocop's Four Prime Directives:

- Serve the public trust
- Protect the innocent
- Uphold the law
- Classified

Don't you think our Robotic society will have a 'Classified' rule in it somewhere?

Paul Verhoeven simply modernised Asimov laws and brought them uptodate!

Mum: See, those three years studying Media and Communication weren't a waste whatsoever!


5:02 PM, July 27, 2006  
Anonymous victor abellon said...

It might interst you this


4:49 PM, July 29, 2006  

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