I know, I know – a shamefully long time since I added anything to this blog.
I am inspired by the two days last week I spent cloistered in a lovely hotel in the New Forest, with twenty or so exceptionally intelligent people — roboticists, AI people, ethicists, philosophers, a lawyer, artists, historians and more — at a retreat to consider the ethical issues raised by ubiquitous robotics. Two days of intense listening and thinking.
Robots were supposed to be ubiquitous by now: I’m pretty sure I was promised in the 1960s that when I grew up, I’d travel everywhere by robotic flying car and at home, recline graciously on my sofa while my robot parlourmaid poured my tea as the robot nanny played games with my lovely (entirely human) children. That hasn’t happened – sadly.
While it’s not easy to define what a “robot” is (believe me, we tried!), there are, apparently, eight million robots in the world already. They can be cuddly, like Paro; designed to offer emotional support. Or cute toys, like Pleo. But what are the ethical issues when robots interact with possibly vulnerable older people or children? Robots can be designed to do dirty and difficult tasks, like mining; but dirty and difficult might also mean military. Robots already ‘man’ factories – what implications do robot employees have for the future of the human kind?
You can’t get too far in two days but we ended the retreat delicately poised in agreement on the kind of questions we should be asking ourselves. As I write, the first draught of an ethical code for robot designers is being created. When it’s ready, it’ll be time to open up the conversation to the wider world. Because, of course, it’s not solely about the people who design the robots; it’s about the people who’ll use them, work alongside them, be cared for by them, play with them, love them, get operated on by them, learn with them, grow up with them, have sex with them, be killed by them …