Viernes 19 de Diciembre de 2008

Ethics guidelines needed for robots
The introduction of robot ethics guidelines is needed immediately, amid surging use of the machines and concern about their lack of human responsibility, a British researcher has said.

In an article published today in the journal Science, artificial intelligence and robotics professor Noel Sharkey, from the University of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, argues that the steady increase in the use of robots in day-to-day life poses unanticipated risks and ethical problems.

My Spoon, My Problem?

Outside of military applications, Sharkey worries how robots - and the people who control them - will be held accountable when the machines work with "the vulnerable," namely children and the elderly.

He notes that there are already robotic machines in wide use, such as the Japanese meal assistance robot 'My Spoon'.

Robots could also soon be entrusted by parents to guard and monitor their children, replacing a flesh-and-blood carer and posing potential problems in long-term exposure to the machines, Sharket said.

"There are already at least 14 companies in Japan and South Korea that have developed child care robots... The question here is, will this lead to neglect and social exclusion?"

Monkeying around

Short-term exposure "can provide an enjoyable and entertaining experience that creates interest and curiosity," Sharkey said, "[but] we do not know what the psychological impact will be for children... left for long hours in the care of robots."

Experiments conducted on monkeys suggest there is reason for concern, said Sharkey, with young monkeys left in the care of robots becoming "unable to deal with other monkeys and to breed".

With prices plunging by 80 per cent since 1990, consumer sales of robots have surged in the 21st century, reaching nearly 5.5 million in 2008, and are expected to double to 11.5 million in the next two years.

"They are set to enter our lives in unprecedented numbers," said Sharkey, expressing fear that an absence of ethical rules fixed by international bodies could mean the machines' control will be left to militaries, the robot industry and busy parents.

Nipping it in the bud

The robotics professor also points to the comments of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who predicted that "over the next few years robots may be a pervasive as the PC."

"We were caught off guard by the sudden increase in Internet use and it would not be a good idea to let that happen with robots," Sharkey said. "It is best if we set up some ethical guidelines now before the mass deployment of robots, rather than wait until they are in common use."

He said it was vital that action be taken on an international level as soon as possible, "rather than let the guidelines set themselves."

I, Robot?

Sharkey has studied robotics for 30 years, and believes such guidelines would not hinder the rise of the machines, about which he is enthusiastic - stressing the benefits that robots can bring "to dangerous work and medicine".

He shrugs off doomsday scenarios presented in books such as Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, which depicts the threatening interaction between robots and humans, or in movies such as the The Terminator, where robots take over the world.

Such story lines will remain firmly in the realm of fantasy, even as societies hurtle towards greater automation, Sharkey said.

"I have no concern whatsoever about robots taking control. They are... machines with computers and sensors and do not think for themselves, despite what science fiction tells us... It is the application of robots by people that concerns me and not the robots themselves."


  19/12/2008. Cosmos Magazine.