Six ways to build robots that do humans no harm
- 14:24 18 November 2008 by Tom Simonite
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With the relentless march of technological progress, robots and other automated systems are getting ever smarter. At the same time they are also being given greater responsibilities, driving cars, helping with childcare, carrying weapons, and maybe soon even pulling the trigger.
But should they be trusted to take on such tasks, and how can we be sure that they never take a decision that could cause unintended harm?
The latest contribution to the growing debate over the challenges posed by increasingly powerful and independent robots is the book Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong.
Authors Wendell Wallach, an ethicist at Yale University, and historian and philosopher of cognitive science Colin Allen, at Indiana University, argue that we need to work out how to make robots into responsible and moral machines. It is just a matter of time until a computer or robot takes a decision that will cause a human disaster, they say.
So are there things we can do to minimise the risks? Wallach and Allen take a look at six strategies that could reduce the danger from our own high-tech creations.
Keep them in low-risk situations
Make sure that all computers and robots never have to make a decision where the consequences can not be predicted in advance.
Likelihood of success: Extremely low. Engineers are already building computers and robotic systems whose actions they cannot always predict.
Consumers, industry, and government demand technologies that perform a wide array of tasks, and businesses will expand the products they offer in order to capitalise on this demand. In order to implement this strategy, it would be necessary to arrest further development of computers and robots immediately.
Do not give them weapons
Likelihood of success: Too late. Semi-autonomous robotic weapons systems, including cruise missiles and Predator drones, already exist. A few machine-gun-toting robots were sent to Iraq and photographed on a battlefield, though apparently were not deployed.
However, military planners are very interested in the development of robotic soldiers, and see them as a means of reducing deaths of human soldiers during warfare.
While it is too late to stop the building of robot weapons, it may not be too late to restrict which weapons they carry, or the situations in which the weapons can be used.
Give them rules like Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’
Likelihood of success: Moderate. Isaac Asimov’s famous rules are arranged hierarchically: most importantly robots should not harm humans or through inaction allow harm to them, of secondary importance is that they obey humans, while robotic self-preservation is the lowest priority.
However, Asimov was writing fiction, not building robots. In story after story he illustrates problems that would arise with even these simple rules, such as what the robot should do when orders from two people conflict.
Asimov’s rules task robots with some difficult judgements. For example, how could a robot know that a human surgeon cutting into a patient was trying to help them? Asimov’s robot stories in fact quite clearly demonstrate the limits of any rule-based morality. Nevertheless, rules can successfully restrict the behaviour of robots that function within very limited contexts.
Program robots with principles
Building robots motivated to create the “greatest good for the greatest number”, or to “treat others as you would wish to be treated” would be safer than laying down simplistic rules.
Likelihood of success: Moderate. Recognising the limits of rules, some ethicists look for an over-riding principle that can be used to evaluate all courses of action.
But the history of ethics is a long debate over the value and limits of many proposed single principles. For example, it could seem logical to sacrifice the lives of one person to save the lives of five people. But a human doctor would not sacrifice a healthy person simply to supply organs to five people needing transplants. Would a robot?
Sometimes identifying the best option under a given rule can be extremely difficult. For example, determining which course of action leads to the greatest good would require a tremendous amount of knowledge, and an understanding of the effects of actions in the world. Making such calculations would require time and a great deal of computing power.
Educate robots like children
Machines that learn as they “grow up” could develop sensitivity to the actions that people consider to be right and wrong.
Likelihood of success: Promising, although this strategy requires a few technological breakthroughs. While researchers have created robots able to learn in similar ways to humans, the tools presently available are very limited.
Make machines master emotion
Human-like faculties such as empathy, emotions, and the capacity to read non-verbal social cues should give robots much greater ability to interact with humans. Work has already started on equipping domestic robots with such faculties.
Likelihood of success: Developing emotionally sensitive robots would certainly help implement the previous three solutions discussed. Most of the information we use to make choices and cooperate with others derives from our emotions, as well as our capacity to read gestures and intentions and imagine things from another person’s point of view.
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