The ethics of robotics and AI

A slight shorter version of this article first appeared in EPSRC Pioneer Magazine in 2016 as part of a special issue on Robotics and AI. I am grateful to UKRI for permission to reproduce it here.


Anamorphic sculpture by Jonty Hurwitz created by Jonty Hurwitz, Niina Keks, and Otto Pierrotto CCBY-SA3.0

The fourth industrial revolution—the era of autonomous machines—is upon us and it is urgent that we reflect on how this is changing UK society and how we can ensure that these impacts are for the common good.

It is perhaps useful to consider the ethical, legal and societal issues we are already facing in relation to robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) and then think about those we may face in the future. 

We already face concerns about the impacts of automation on jobs, the use of robots as weapons, invasion of privacy, and the loss of human autonomy (AIs making decisions on our behalf).  Some of these changes are happening gradually, and with little fanfare, nevertheless we do need to be attentive to their cumulative impacts on our personal freedoms and way of life.

For instance, I think it is becoming urgent that we address the inequalities that are arising as robots and AIs displace people from employment.   Whilst robotic and AI technologies will create jobs in the near-term, its seem likely that they will eventually take over much of the work currently performed by people leading to a net loss of jobs, or to a reduction in the amount of time people spend working.  A key benefit of these technologies could be a general rise in standards of living, moreover, people will do less dreary, repetitive or unfulfilling work with the possibility of replacing this with activity that is directed towards family, social life, education, arts, and self-realisation. Hurray, we might think!  Nevertheless, the evidence is that automation is actually leading to greater wealth inequality and leaving many people to consider a less secure future. To meet this challenge, governments, including in the UK, may need to make substantive changes to taxation and social security, or to consider more root-and-branch approaches such as a switch to universal income.   A tax on robots has even been mooted and may not be as crazy as it sounds.

In the coming decade we are also likely to see increased use of robotics in our public and personal spaces.  For instance, in health and social care, the area of focus of our new spin-out, Consequential Robotics, there are potentially many benefits for an ageing UK population. In fifteen years there will be fifty percent more over 65s than there are today, and the proportion of older people in our society will continue to grow for some time after that. Robotic systems can help mitigate some of the most significant effects of this change, including labour shortages due to the retirement of older skilled workers, and the capacity of our health and social care services to support an increasing proportion of the population that are older and frail.  A new generation of safe and human-friendly robots could assist in extending the active independent lives of older UK citizens both at work and at home. 

At the same time, there are concerns about the possibly replacement of human care by machine care and these need to be given proper consideration.  For me, one lesson is that we must work to make robots complementary to human carers, and perhaps consider legislation that protects a basic right to some direct human contact.

In the much longer-term, there is the question of whether robots and AIs could achieve a level of general intelligence and autonomy where we would need to see them as other beings, potentially with rights. People may form personal relationships with such AIs. Ultimately, there is the risk of the so-called “technological singularity”—the moment at which humanity is surpassed by its own super-intelligent creations.  While these outcomes may seem like science fiction, they are at least theoretically possible and are the focus of many TV shows and movies that make them seem believable.

Unsurprisingly, people are worried.  I think its right that centres such as the Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute are starting to consider these possible long-term impacts, and I believe that the wider research community should start giving them some thought.  We have learned from studying climate change that human technologies can have potentially irreversible world-changing effects.  It is not over-dramatising to say that long-term impacts of robotics ands AI technologies could be as significant. 

To better understand and address public concerns we will need improved science communication, and, in order to assure people that the research and development work we are doing is for their general good, we may also need increased governance of research and innovation in these fields.  The EPSRC framework for responsible innovation AREA (the acronym stands for anticipate, reflect, engage, and act) is a useful starting point, and at Sheffield Robotics institute we are working to build this approach into the way we develop new projects and how we conduct our day-to-day research and interact with people across our city and region. However, research in robotics and AI is worldwide, and is conducted by many different types of organisations, both traditional bodies such as universities and corporations, and newer and more informal players such as online and open-source “maker” communities.  Governance and regulation will need to be international if it is to be effective and not simply promote competitive advantages for less regulated countries. It will also need to be smart and persuasive if it is going to command the attention of all possible players. I believe that the UK can and should provide global leadership in meeting this very significant challenge.

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