Faculty of Arts and Humanities

The robots are coming, but is ethics keeping pace?

Rotman Robotics

The robots are coming, but is ethics keeping pace?

By: Anthony Skelton

What is a robot? In an article in the journal Artificial Intelligence, Patrick Lin and colleagues define a robot, in the most basic sense, “as an engineered machine that senses, thinks, and acts”. Such robots possess “on-board intelligence” that is necessary for the purpose of performing “significant tasks autonomously”.

Such robots have to make ethical decisions. But on what basis? By reference to which principles?
Consider a driverless car. Suppose it is in a situation where it will collide with either one person or five persons. How ought it to decide what to do? Should it always seek to prevent harm to the greater number? Or should it give each of the two groups an equal chance of avoiding harm?

In the future robots may be called upon to diagnose patients. Suppose a robot relies on existing data to do so. If that data is sexist or racist, this might lead to poor diagnoses for some (already marginalised) patients. How do we make sure that a robot has reliable information? What counts as reliable information?
Who is to be punished when a robot does wrong? Punishing a robot seems to leave us cold. But we have a stubborn desire for retribution. Does seeking it make sense in the case of a robot? If not, why not? Perhaps our thirst for it is anyway misplaced.

The use of such robots raises serious ethical concerns. As with any technology we have to decide whether its use has a favourable cost-benefit ratio. Deciding this requires careful, explicit, sober deliberation, to which all should be party.

For a discussion of these and other issues, join the Rotman Institute of Philosophy on March 15 - 17 for a panel discussion and two public lectures exploring responsible robotics and robot ethics -- featuring Western alumna Aimee van Wynsberghe (BSc ’06), Christopher Schlachta (Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry) and other leading experts in the field of robotics.

To learn more or register on the web at The Rotman Institute of Philosophy