Robot Ethics Urged

As service robots become increasingly common, one AI expert worries that no international regulations or policy guidelines exist beyond laws designed to punish negligence.

Thomas Claburn

December 18, 2008

2 Min Read
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The robots are coming and they must be regulated before it's too late.

Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, makes that argument in The Ethical Frontiers of Robotics, an article in the December 19 issue of Science. Sharkey is calling for international guidelines to establish how robots can operate safely and ethically.

Citing widespread use of robots used for elder-care, like Secom's "My Spoon" automatic feeding robot and the Mitsubishi Wakamura medicine-reminder robot, Sharkey says service robots are becoming increasingly common. But he worries that no international regulations or policy guidelines exist beyond laws designed to punish negligence.

In a paper published earlier this year, "2084: Big robot is watching you," Sharkey describes how robots are now being used around the world for policing. The most dangerous, he says, are the robot border guards in South Korea.

As robots become more affordable and more capable, they will be used more frequently for law enforcement. Sharkey finds that troubling.

"It is undeniable that robots are a safe way to reduce future crime," he writes. "However, the price for our protection may be too great. The progressive growth of robot policing poses some serious technological dystopian threats to our society. There is a trade-off between crime prevention and our privacy, our civil liberties and our basic human rights. All of these will be eroded by the development of new robot technologies for monitoring, checking, tagging, and following us."

Sharkey believes there's no need to worry about "these robot being 'super-intelligent overlords taking over the planet and killing or enslaving all humans.'" Artificial intelligence has been a flop. "There is absolutely no evidence of machines becoming any more intelligent than they were 30 years ago," he writes.

The danger is people equipped with this powerful technology. "As long as authorities are benign, caring, and don't make mistakes, such powerful policing could be of great benefit to mankind," he writes. "But, as we all know, absolute power corrupts. Those in control of the machines will control society."

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