A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Tag: robotics

Ethically responsible robot development

Development of new technologies sometimes draws inspiration from nature. How do plants and animals solve the problem? An example is robotics, where one wants to develop better robots based on what neuroscience knows about the brain. How does the brain solve the problem?

Neuroscience, in turn, sees new opportunities to test hypotheses about the brain by simulating them in robots. Perhaps one can simulate how areas of the brain interact in patients with Parkinson’s disease, to understand how their tremor and other difficulties are caused.

Neuroscience-inspired robotics, so-called neurorobotics, is still at an early stage. This makes neurorobotics an excellent area for being ethically and socially more proactive than we have been in previous technological developments. That is, we can already begin to identify possible ethical and social problems surrounding technological development and counteract them before they arise. For example, we cannot close our eyes to gender and equality issues, but must continuously reflect on how our own social and cultural patterns are reflected in the technology we develop. We need to open our eyes to our own blind spots!

You can read more about this ethical shift in technology development in an article in Science and Engineering Ethics (with Manuel Guerrero from CRB as one of the authors). The shift is called Responsible Research and Innovation, and is exemplified in the article by ongoing work in the European research project, Human Brain Project.

Not only neuroscientists and technology experts are collaborating in this project to develop neurorobotics. Scholars from the humanities and social sciences are also involved in the work. The article itself is an example of this broad collaboration. However, the implementation of responsible research and development is also at an early stage. It still needs to find more concrete forms of work that make it possible not only to anticipate ethical and social problems and reflect on them, but also to act and intervene to influence scientific and technological development.

From being a framework built around research and development, ethics is increasingly integrated into research and development. Read the article if you want to think about this transition to a more reflective and responsible technological development.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Aicardi, C., Akintoye, S., Fothergill, B.T. et al. Ethical and Social Aspects of Neurorobotics. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2533–2546 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00248-8

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Approaching future issues

What is required of an ethics of artificial intelligence?

I recently highlighted criticism of the ethics that often figures in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). An ethics that can handle the challenges that AI presents us with requires more than just beautifully formulated ethical principles, values ​​and guidelines. What exactly is required of an ethics of artificial intelligence?

Michele Farisco, Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles address the issue in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics. For them, ethics is not primarily principles and guidelines. Ethics is rather an ongoing process of thinking: it is continual ethical reflection on AI. Their question is thus not what is required of an ethical framework built around AI. Their question is what is required of in-depth ethical reflection on AI.

The authors emphasize conceptual analysis as essential in all ethical reflection on AI. One of the big difficulties is that we do not know exactly what we are discussing! What is intelligence? What is the difference between artificial and natural intelligence? How should we understand the relationship between intelligence and consciousness? Between intelligence and emotions? Between intelligence and insightfulness?

Ethical problems about AI can be both practical and theoretical, the authors point out. They describe two practical and two theoretical problems to consider. One practical problem is the use of AI in activities that require emotional abilities that AI lacks. Empathy gives humans insight into other humans’ needs. Therefore, AI’s lack of emotional involvement should be given special attention when we consider using AI in, for example, child or elderly care. The second practical problem is the use of AI in activities that require foresight. Intelligence is not just about reacting to input from the environment. A more active, foresighted approach is often needed, going beyond actual experience and seeing less obvious, counterintuitive possibilities. Crying can express pain, joy and much more, but AI cannot easily foresee less obvious possibilities.

Two theoretical problems are also mentioned in the article. The first is whether AI in the future may have morally relevant characteristics such as autonomy, interests and preferences. The second problem is whether AI can affect human self-understanding and create uncertainty and anxiety about human identity. These theoretical problems undoubtedly require careful analysis – do we even know what we are asking? In philosophy we often need to clarify our questions as we go along.

The article emphasizes one demand in particular on ethical analysis of AI. It should carefully consider morally relevant abilities that AI lacks, abilities needed to satisfy important human needs. Can we let a cute kindergarten robot “comfort” children when they scream with joy or when they injure themselves so badly that they need nursing?

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Farisco, M., Evers, K. & Salles, A. Towards establishing criteria for the ethical analysis of Artificial Intelligence. Science and Engineering Ethics (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00238-w

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We want solid foundations

Ethics as renewed clarity about new situations

An article in the journal Big Data & Society criticizes the form of ethics that has come to dominate research and innovation in artificial intelligence (AI). The authors question the same “framework interpretation” of ethics that you could read about on the Ethics Blog last week. However, with one disquieting difference. Rather than functioning as a fence that can set the necessary boundaries for development, the framework risks being used as ethics washing by AI companies that want to avoid legal regulation. By referring to ethical self-regulation – beautiful declarations of principles, values ​​and guidelines – one hopes to be able to avoid legal regulation, which could set important limits for AI.

The problem with AI ethics as “soft ethics legislation” is not just that it can be used to avoid necessary legal regulation of the area. The problem is above all, according to the SIENNA researchers who wrote the article, that a “law conception of ethics” does not help us to think clearly about new situations. What we need, they argue, is an ethics that constantly renews our ability to see the new. This is because AI is constantly confronting us with new situations: new uses of robots, new opportunities for governments and companies to monitor people, new forms of dependence on technology, new risks of discrimination, and many other challenges that we may not easily anticipate.

The authors emphasize that such eye-opening AI ethics requires close collaboration with the social sciences. That, of course, is true. Personally, I want to emphasize that an ethics that renews our ability to see the new must also be philosophical in the deepest sense of the word. To see the new and unexpected, you cannot rest comfortably in your professional competence, with its established methods, theories and concepts. You have to question your own disciplinary framework. You have to think for yourself.

Read the article, which has already attracted well-deserved attention.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Anaïs Rességuier, Rowena Rodrigues. 2020. AI ethics should not remain toothless! A call to bring back the teeth of ethics. Big Data & Society

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We like critical thinking

What is a moral machine?

I recently read an article about so-called moral robots, which I found clarifying in many ways. The philosopher John-Stewart Gordon points out pitfalls that non-ethicists – robotics researchers and AI programmers – may fall into when they try to construct moral machines. Simply because they lack ethical expertise.

The first pitfall is the rookie mistakes. One might naively identify ethics with certain famous bioethical principles, as if ethics could not be anything but so-called “principlism.” Or, it is believed that computer systems, through automated analysis of individual cases, can “learn” ethical principles and “become moral,” as if morality could be discovered experientially or empirically.

The second challenge has to do with the fact that the ethics experts themselves disagree about the “right” moral theory. There are several competing ethical theories (utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics and more). What moral template should programmers use when getting computers to solve moral problems and dilemmas that arise in different activities? (Consider self-driving cars in difficult traffic situations.)

The first pitfall can be addressed with more knowledge of ethics. How do we handle the second challenge? Should we allow programmers to choose moral theory as it suits them? Should we allow both utilitarian and deontological robot cars on our streets?

John-Stewart Gordon’s suggestion is that so-called machine ethics should focus on the similarities between different moral theories regarding what one should not do. Robots should be provided with a binding list of things that must be avoided as immoral. With this restriction, the robots then have leeway to use and balance the plurality of moral theories to solve moral problems in a variety of ways.

In conclusion, researchers and engineers in robotics and AI should consult the ethics experts so that they can avoid the rookie mistakes and understand the methodological problems that arise when not even the experts in the field can agree about the right moral theory.

All this seems both wise and clarifying in many ways. At the same time, I feel genuinely confused about the very idea of ​​”moral machines” (although the article is not intended to discuss the idea, but focuses on ethical challenges for engineers). What does the idea mean? Not that I doubt that we can design artificial intelligence according to ethical requirements. We may not want robot cars to avoid collisions in city traffic by turning onto sidewalks where many people walk. In that sense, there may be ethical software, much like there are ethical funds. We could talk about moral and immoral robot cars as straightforwardly as we talk about ethical and unethical funds.

Still, as I mentioned, I feel uncertain. Why? I started by writing about “so-called” moral robots. I did so because I am not comfortable talking about moral machines, although I am open to suggestions about what it could mean. I think that what confuses me is that moral machines are largely mentioned without qualifying expressions, as if everyone ought to know what it should mean. Ethical experts disagree on the “right” moral theory. However, they seem to agree that moral theory determines what a moral decision is; much like grammar determines what a grammatical sentence is. With that faith in moral theory, one need not contemplate what a moral machine might be. It is simply a machine that makes decisions according to accepted moral theory. However, do machines make decisions in the same sense as humans do?

Maybe it is about emphasis. We talk about ethical funds without feeling dizzy because a stock fund is said to be ethical (“Can they be humorous too?”). There is no mythological emphasis in the talk of ethical funds. In the same way, we can talk about ethical robot cars without feeling dizzy as if we faced something supernatural. However, in the philosophical discussion of machine ethics, moral machines are sometimes mentioned in a mythological way, it seems to me. As if a centaur, a machine-human, will soon see the light of day. At the same time, we are not supposed to feel dizzy concerning these brave new centaurs, since the experts can spell out exactly what they are talking about. Having all the accepted templates in their hands, they do not need any qualifying expressions!

I suspect that also ethical expertise can be a philosophical pitfall when we intellectually approach so-called moral machines. The expert attitude can silence the confusing questions that we all need time to contemplate when honest doubts rebel against the claim to know.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Gordon, J. Building Moral Robots: Ethical Pitfalls and Challenges. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 141–157 (2020).

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