Should robots replace humans?

Exploring the ethical issues surrounding using robots in warfare, healthcare, and the classroom.
17 November 2014

Interview with 

Professor Barbara Sahakian, Cambridge University, Professor Goldie Nejat, Toronto University


Exploring the issues surrounding using robots in warfare, healthcare, and the Robot Hugclassroom.

Hannah - Barbara  is a President of the International Neuro Ethics Society. Barbara, and joins to discuss ethical issues that were raised during the meeting here.

Barbara - Yes. I mean, one reason we held this was because obviously the robotics technology and everything is taking off. There's a lot of important issues to do with society. We want to make sure everything is for the benefit of society within the International Neuro Ethics Society, and we want to look at the impact that these new technologies will have on people.

Hannah - So, Goldie you mentioned that one of your robots , your 3D robots cost about $10,000 dollars to produce at the moment which is considerably cheaper than employing a nursing assistant or a care worker for a year. So Barbara, what are the concerns regarding that, and how on Earth do you discuss these concerns with policy makers and businesses?

Barbara - Goldie mentioned a few of the aspects that she does in her work to make sure that things are done in an ethical way in terms of bringing in the carer to discuss what needs to be done with this particular individual so it's more focused on the person themselves. And I think that's what we really need to do with these things, is to think of them as aids for people in situations where perhaps there isn't enough help. And if a robot doesn't do it, nobody will do it.

But on the other hand, as a society, I mean, how do we want to behave? Do we want to just say, "Okay, It's fine for robots to do all these things", and to leave people to interact with a robot even no matter how good it is. Perhaps it's not as good as a human being in terms of quality of interaction, and do they give the same sense of well-being that you might have if you're interacting with a human.

I think as a society, we have to think how much do we want to use these techniques to help with situations that we can't deal with in other ways. If you're going into a very dangerous situation, one for instance they were removing nuclear waste and things like that, you have to be concerned about the health of a human being versus just a normal social interaction that one hopefully would expect in society to get from another person.

Goldie of course mentioned that it's early stages development but what was raised tonight which was very interesting in discussion, raised the ethical issue about vulnerable populations being exposed to robotics because there are issues to do with.

As a society, do we find it disturbing that perhaps somebody who is demented doesn't actually realize they're being care for by a robot or forms unusual attachments to the robot that is unexpected and, you know, some people might feel it's duping the person into behaving in a way that most people might regard as unnatural. So, there's a lot of ethical issues that come out of this type of work as well.

Hannah - And finally, Goldie, I just wondered whether your robots would ever be used in education or child care, for example.

Goldie - Yes. So, we are designing actually social robot, search-and-rescue with other applications where we're trying to use robots really as assistives. Like I mentioned before, the idea, is can robots be used as a tool, right? And can it be used as a training tool, as a tool to help people in dangerous situations where you can have a robot do it for search-and-rescue, for example, rather than put more human lives at risk. So, it's kind of this open idea of how do you interact with a robot and can you interact with it socially, then the applications kind of become unlimited that you could use it as assistive technology.

Hannah - Barbara.

Barbara - I thought another very important point that Goldie raised was the essentially cognitive training or sometimes it's called brain training in some sense. But trying to improve memory and all the people and the patients with dementia and I thought it was very interesting the way the robots had these facial expressions to try and encourage people and that's a very positive thing. But one maybe has to balance that against the fact we're now developing games that are used to do same sorts of things. And people who work in the game industry know very well how to increase motivation and somebody's getting frustrated, how to bring the level down easily. And it might be just easier to have an iPad with a game on it rather than perhaps a complicated robot that's trying to speak to you and encourage you to turn a card over.

Hannah - On a related note, I heard recently that about an autistic boy who forged a friendship with Siri the artificial virtual assistant with a voice-controlled natural language interface. Siri's got a synthetic voice. The autistic boy's mother claimed it kind of helped him to understand world and his sense of reality, and also, helped him to galvanize almost a sense of empathy with this synthetic voice. So, do you think that there is - not just for 3D robots but also 2D robots - this extra way of helping autistic children maybe, for example, or other types of vulnerable people using robots.

Barbara - There are some very good experiments actually with avatars. And they show that it helps children learn how to interact with other children so that when autistic children go back into the classroom after they've had some of the training with the avatar, they actually are much better at knowing how they should respond to different situations and interact with children in a more effective way. So they're more popular and they fit in better, so yes, these techniques turning out to be very good for special groups that need help with social interaction or other forms of cognition.

Hannah - And Proffer Ronald Arkin who spoke on the use of robots in the military, was mentioning something along the lines of 45% of American soldiers admitted that they would go against protocol and actually fire on civilians given certain situations which obviously you can program a computer or a robot not to do that. So, you could actually use arguing that could decrease the amount of humans, and specifically, civilians that are being killed in warfare.

Barbara - Absolutely. So, his idea was that collateral damage and the other damage to civilians, children would be less and if that's the case, that'll be fantastic. But obviously, it's untried at the moment. That is what his aim his and I thought that that was very good that he's kind of got this moral intention with the robotics to actually make them act in an ethical way. You know, if they identify a school bus, if they identify a hospital, they don't actually damage that building or that bus. People are concerned about who is responsible if, for instance in the context of warfare, one of the robotics that's being used is out of control or is doing something that it wasn't planned to do because we've all had the experience of computers going badly wrong. It's important that we are able to identify these problems early on and be able to deal with those. Warfare itself is horrible. People are very concerned about deaths of civilians involved but it's one thing if at least it felt that it's necessary and that human beings are involved in making the decisions. But when that is taken away, people get very concerned about will it escalate, you know, if we're using machines and we're not actually using human lives or wasting human lives.

Hannah - We're going to close now with the last question that was asked at the end of this evening's discussion which was, how do think society will change as we get more and more used to robots being used in different roles within it? How will it affect us as individuals and as a society more generally? Goldie.

Goldie - I think it's really actually an exciting time to see. If we look back in history, there's been a lot of technologies, right? Starting from the industrial revolution, all the way to when TVs, you know, came into our households and how people were going to behave, then computers, cell phones, and so on. So, I think of us as kind of developers and at this is just looking at the applications and really where we want to take this technology. So I think it's an exciting time to see really make sure that we're designing these robots for society. We need to help society, right? Then I think this is the best time to kind of really discuss and think about the policies so that we can shape this into the future.

Hannah - Barbara.

Barbara - Well, I agree with what Goldie said. I think it's absolutely brilliant that we've got all this new technology and will be very helpful. There are situations where, as we mentioned, it's unsafe not to use a robot and you know to put a human in the front line at that stage could be very hazardous if this toxic waste does something else. So, I think it's great that we have the ability to use all this new robotic information that we have but what we have to do is what we did tonight which is really discuss it with members of the public and amongst ourselves to see that we have a really good ethical way of proceeding.

Hannah - And the very last question posed at the end of the session was, what's the role of robots in sex? So apparently, you can buy robots for sex over the internet and the comments surrounding this concerned how it could benefit society by helping to set free those currently trapped in human trafficking. Thanks to Goldie Nejat and Barbara Sahakian.


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