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An Ethics-Informed Approach to the Development of Social Robotics

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Efforts to develop intelligent humanlike robots that can assist in homes, offices, hospitals and just about everywhere else and engage in social interaction with people in their everyday lives have long leapfrogged out of the fantasies of science fiction, and are rapidly advancing from engineering prototypes to potential commercial realities (Brooks, 2000; Bar-Cohen and Breazeal, 2003; Reddy, 2006). Not surprisingly, this move has stirred up, from diverse circles, deepening ethical concerns about the possible consequences of the widespread adoption of this new class of machine. Though earlier technological innovations did spark off similar concerns and speculations that have, over the years, received a lot of debate and research attention, social robotics portend more far-reaching challenges to scientists and engineers in particular and the society in general. Social robotics is a “hybrid science” (Caporael, 2000) that seeks to conceal the ontological differences between the natural and the artificial, between the human and the machine and between the physical and the social. It represents a quantum shift in our application of digital devices – from the formally defined domain of logic, arithmetic and structured processes to the fuzzy terrain of use of discretion, emotion, free will and sociality.

Studies on the ethical impact of social robotics (Thompson, 1999; Veruggio, 2006; Veruggio and Operto, 2008) have tended to focus on four central questions: How will society be affected by the development and employment of social robots? What will be the nature and extent of the effects, good or bad? What design principles and standards will robot developers adhere to in order to develop human-friendly robots that will not pose threats to mankind? What policies will managers as well as employers and end-users of social robots adopt in order to ensure a peaceful and fair human–robot co-existence? A wide range of positions is indeed possible on these questions. Recent discussions have addressed such issues as the challenge of substantiating rudimentary moral reasoning in a machine (Moor, 2006; Wallach, 2008; Bar-Cohen, 2000; Brown, 2001), the place and rights of robots in human society (Bartneck, 2004; Brooks, 2000) – as appliances (Stephan, 2007), friends (Breazeal, 2002), corporate or socio-technical beings (Asaro, 2006) or moral agents (Sullins, 2006; Wallach, 2008), the thrills and implications of living with robots (Anderson et al., 2005) and getting married to robots (Levy, 2007), and the possibility of robots unleashing an Armageddon on mankind (Duffy, 2006) – often leading to deep and open philosophical questions. These anxieties, according to (Moor, 2006), reflect to a large extent our limited understanding in practice of what a proper ethical theory is.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2011

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