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Robot Ethics: Book review

Now that robots have moved from science fiction to imminent reality, this book considers the ethical and other issues surrounding the increasingly smart machines we may soon be sharing our lives with.
Written by Wendy M Grossman, Contributor

If the first thing that pops into your head when you read the title Robot Ethics is science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, then you're like many of the rest of us. The Laws were a storytelling device that Asimov adopted so he could write stories exploring the possible consequences of having non-evil robots share living space with humans — at a time when any real hope of such a thing was decades off, at least. We may now be on the verge of the real thing, from Roombas to caretaker robots looking after children and the elderly in Japan. And if there's one thing we know it's that there isn't any realistic way of turning Asimov's laws into functioning computer code. In fact, a lot of the things we'd like robots to be able to do reliably — such as respond proportionately when it's deployed in a war zone — are simply not things we have any idea how to code.


Robot Ethics considers this sort of problem, as well as issues regarding robot lovers (Blay Whitby) and prostitutes (David Levy), humans' ability to fall into emotional dependence upon even the most machine-like of machines (Matthias Scheutz), robot caregivers and the ethical issues they pose (Jason Borenstein and Amanda Sharkey), whether there can be such a thing as a "moral machine" (Anthony F. Beavers), and the problem that comes up so often among optimistically futurist roboticists of whether at some point robots will deserve human rights (Colin Allen and Wendell Wallach).

I have to give these authors credit here: they are not just speculating about whether robots can become real people, but considering problems of liability. That's a good thing, because this is traditionally the point at which my inner biological supremacist asserts itself: who cares whether robots should have rights? Let's focus on the maltreatment so many humans have to live through first, OK? More practically, that sort of problem is a distraction from the very real opportunities that robots will present for invading their owners' privacy, as Ryan Calo argues in his chapter, 'Robots and privacy'; your "plastic pal who's fun to be with" is going to collect an amazing amount of data about you just in the ordinary course of organising your life — data that our increasingly surveillance-happy societies will surely be interested in.

"Probably the biggest moral conundrum posed by robots is the human propensity for anthropomorphising."

In the end, probably the biggest moral conundrum posed by robots is the human propensity for anthropomorphising: some (how many?) people treat their Roombas like family pets — and a robot could hardly be dumber than a Roomba. A smart robot designed to simulate real emotional response is infinitely more dangerous in terms of suckering us into cuddling up to it and telling it our innermost secrets. If some of the worst scenarios imagined in this book ever come to pass, it may be like the whale in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who, seeing the ground rushing toward it at high speed, asked optimistically, "I wonder if it will be friends with me?" That would be us, cast as the whale.

Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics
Edited by Patrick Lin, Keith Abeney and George A. Bekey
MIT Press
386 pages
ISBN: 978-0-262-01666-7
Price £31.95, $45

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