Robots and SocioEthical Implications

By on March 7th, 2018 in Editorial & Opinion, Magazine Articles, Robotics, Societal Impact

From lifelike androids to virtual assistants, industrial machines to drones, today’s robot creations, including those in automation, are used to perform any number of specific tasks. These undertakings are repetitive in nature and suggest that we are still a long way from manufacturing “all-purpose” utility robots.

History teaches us much about technological innovation and the perils of over-promising. We are, for example, still a far cry away from the headlines of the first computers that promised so much but delivered only computational trajectories for the military. In fact, seventy years later, we will see headlines similar to this one from 1946 describing the power of the Electronic Numerical
Integrator and Computer: “It Won’t Mind the Baby — Yet; But Little Else
Stops ‘ENIAC’” [1].

It is difficult not to be mesmerized by robotic instrumentation demonstrating beyond-human-like capabilities.

It is difficult not to be mesmerized by robotic instrumentation demonstrating beyond-human-like capabilities, including superior powers to lift, carry, and run in all-terrain landscapes.

But while the likes of Boston Dynamics’ creations fill us with awe, these physically impressive machines still lack common sense, basic communication skills, and emotional intelligence [2]. Is it unreasonable for us to want more from the AI-inspired — something more than, for example, a robot that can get up off the ground, and recover from being hit with a club?

Robots encapsulated and embodied in tin metal, and adorned with sensors, silicon, batteries, and actuators are, however, just one form of robotics. Against this backdrop we are starting to see the rise of software-based robots, or “bots” for short. These types of bots have been beating humans at chess since 1997 [3], and more recently at GO and Jeopardy as well, providing companionship, and organizing our lives and homes. Other bots, when let loose over interconnected networks, have dramatically impacted political attitudes [4], marketing strategies, and official public records. Bots have the ability to amass and distribute considerable power, especially when teamed with artificial intelligence and humans.

Law firms are increasingly using bots to troll through large troves of documents during the discovery phase, for faster and arguably more reliable searching, while medicine is increasingly turning to sophisticated algorithms to comb through medical records and make more precise diagnoses. How do we study, make sense of, and impact or direct not only these tangled and entrenched socio-ethical implications, but also our societal expectations and demands?

Most recently it has been “killer robots” that made the headlines, as leading roboticists have increasingly called for governments and others to prohibit the production of military drones, especially those that can conduct highly targeted signature strikes based on pattern-of-life data [5]. Equally, as self-driving vehicles move beyond real-world testing and into the commercial market, millions of transport workers worldwide are thinking carefully about the future of work and their fear of so-called “technological unemployment.”

And then there are those campaigners who are calling for a ban on sex robots [6]. A myriad of profound and long-lasting social and policy implications remain. It is incumbent on researchers and readers of this joint special issue from various disciplines, backgrounds, and roles, to help policy makers and others grapple with the effective responses to this new era.

John C. Havens elegantly reminded us recently, “it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that Artificial Intelligence (AI) [or robotics] will be one of two things: our destroyer or our savior. It’s time to move beyond this dualistic narrative. The ‘either or’ comparisons create fear or unrealistic expectations, neither of which
pragmatically move society forward” [7]. For Havens the emphasis should be on “Extended Intelligence.” Perhaps analogously for our special issue the emphasis should be on “Human-Enhanced Robotics.”

Havens cites Joi Ito heavily in his piece for IEEE USA and appears to be similarly wary of reductionist approaches that usually polarize society to an
“either/or” debate [8]. As illustrated by the pieces that make up this special issue, it simply isn’t that easy. We have accepted papers that demonstrate both positive and negative social implications of robotics; papers that are in their nascent stages of proving the value of robotics with respect to specific contexts, and papers that prove that we have major challenges ahead with respect to privacy, security, trust, and robotics. We have a range of empirically-based papers, and papers that are more philosophically-based in argumentation.
Only through the inclusion of all, sitting side by side to each other, are readers able to understand the true breadth and complexities presented by today and tomorrow’s robotics.

We hope that this special issue will appeal to all our IEEE Technology and Society Magazine readership. As it is a joint special issue with IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, we hope it may also demonstrate to engineers of all kinds the importance of thinking about the socio-ethical potential implications
of their inventions – all the way from robots in health, to robots for the military, from robots that serve a specific function in the workplace, to bot software that might well be used to misinform or manipulate the masses. There are unintended consequences to all innovations, but perhaps what is of more interest in this special issue are those intended consequences and how they play out [9], [10].

Guest Editor Information
Katina Michael is professor at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Email:
Diana Bowman is an associate professor in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.
Meg Leta Jones is an assistant professor at Georgetown University, Washington, DC.
Ramona Pringle is an assistant professor in the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada, and Creative Director of the Transmedia Zone, an incubator for the future of media.