Friday, 19 Dec, 2008 Technology

Robotics Expert Calls for Robot Ethics Guidelines


According to a British specialist in robotics, there is an urgent need in ethics guidelines to control the utilization of robots in caring for children and elderly people. The case of Professor Noel Sharkey, of the Department of Computer Science, was published in latest issue of the journal "Science".

The professor considers that the use of robots is constantly increasing, which may lead to unexpected risks and ethical issues. Pr. Sharkey expressed special concerns over the influence of "personal care" robots on children and elderly, representing the most vulnerable groups within a society.

The expert stated that today there are about 14 companies that create child care robots in Japan and South Korea. Pr. Sharkey is worried about the fact that the steady increase of such robots could "lead to neglect and social exclusion." He outlined that teddy bears become redundant among children, who choose robots and get attached to them. Although, in short-term, robots may provide an entertaining experience for children, who are curious about the machines, in long-term children may get attached to robots, which may lead to psychological problems due to the lack of human contact.

The professor gave example of monkeys who were exposed to personal care robots. They showed inability to deal with other monkey and thus were unable to breed. According to Sharkey there are a lot of robots today that help elderly people. One of them is "My Spoon" - a Japanese creation that automatically feeds elderly. There is also a Japanese electric bathtub robot that washes and rinses older people automatically.

The expert is also concerned about the use of robots in military operations, and namely about the location and automatic destruction of targets without human interference. "The ethical problems arise because no computational system can discriminate between combatants and innocents in a close-contact encounter," outlines Sharkey.

In 2008 consumers acquired about 5.5 million robots. Over the next two years, this number may double to 11.5 million. "[Robots] are set to enter our lives in unprecedented numbers," says Sharkey. He fears that without ethical rules, set by international bodies, the control of robots will be left to busy parents, militaries and robot industry.

"It is best if we set up some ethical guidelines now before the mass deployment of robots rather than wait until they are in common use," the scientist says. He considers that it is crucial to take specific measures on an international level immediately.

It is worth mentioning that Sharkey studied robotics for over 30 years and for him the ethic rules are compatible with the increase of the number of robots, of which he is a great supporter. He dismisses the theories about robots taking over the world, presented in "I, Robot" and "The Terminator," considering that these stories will only remain fantasies.

"They are dumb machines with computers and sensors and do not think for themselves despite what science fiction tells us," says Sharkey, adding that he is mostly concerned about the application of robots by people and not the machines themselves.

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