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Leading scientists consider the ethics of robotics

Issue date:
26 October 2010
upper body and head of the plastic skeleton of a robot

Some of the key ethical and societal issues potentially presented by robotics research have been identified by leading researchers at an interdisciplinary event organised by EPSRC. Experts have set out steps to ensure that the benefits of robotics technology are considered alongside societal concerns.

Most people are familiar with the use of robots in industries like car manufacture or in situations too dangerous for people, such as bomb disposal and undersea exploration. Now robotics is poised to move into a new era in which it becomes a ubiquitous enabling technology with applications touching every aspect of our lives from cars that drive themselves to uses in humble household appliances and toys.

But the move of robotics into everyday applications potentially raises a number of ethical concerns including robot autonomy, privacy and data collection, and it is important that researchers and research sponsors address and take responsibility for them at an early stage.

As part of an ongoing agenda to promote responsible innovation EPSRC’s Societal Issues Panel commissioned a three day event, in conjunction with AHRC, which took place in September 2010. For the first time, researchers from across the robotics community were brought together with key researchers from the arts, humanities, law and social sciences. The ‘Robotics Retreat’ challenged the 14 delegates to identify the key issues and suggest how the community, including EPSRC, should respond.

The extremely open discussion was stimulated and provoked by guest speakers, by role play around a hypothetical scenario and with public engagement through a Café Scientifique. Vivienne Parry, science broadcaster and lead facilitator at the Retreat said “This was an extraordinary event and the involvement of arts and humanities made a great difference to the quality and range of discussion”.

Key findings:

  • Issues to consider further include applications in healthcare; privacy and data protection; autonomy and responsibility; cost/benefit of military research.
  • An interdisciplinary approach is crucial: robotics draws on and serves many technology areas and the potential impacts are societal. Well informed discussion is only possible with the input of the whole community involved in robotics as well as the arts and humanities.
  • Public perception of robotics is informed by representations of robots in popular culture which may make it difficult for people to understand the benefits and limits of real life robotics.
  • The research community is wide and varied. There is a need to bring together all the elements and develop a common understanding of the issues before agreeing on how they might be tackled in conjunction with the public.

As specific outputs from the event, the group will:

  • Draft an updated version of Asimov’s laws for designers and users of robots with the aim of creating a wide ranging societal debate.
  • Draft a set of high-level messages for researchers and the public.
  • Begin a dialogue with the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the Information Commissioner’s Office in order to discuss frameworks for responsible innovation.
  • Develop proposals for an interdisciplinary forum or network.

Dr Stephen Kemp, EPSRC Portfolio Manager for Control, Robotics and Autonomous Systems said:

“Robots and autonomous systems are increasingly being used in situations where they come into close contact with people. Researchers are keenly addressing the engineering problems thrown up by this shift and this event shows that scientists also recognise the wider impacts of their work. We’ve identified some important next steps to support responsible innovation not only in robotics but in a number of other areas that are set to transform our lives.”

Professor Dave Delpy, EPSRC Chief Executive, said:

“The Robotics Retreat forms part of the work of EPSRC’s Societal Issues Panel, chaired by Lord Robert Winston. We want to encourage and challenge our researchers to think more broadly about the potential ethical and societal impacts of their work.

The idea behind the Retreat is to get researchers thinking freely and exploring the unexpected – there are no right answers and it’s not about consensus building. It is one of a range of activities, that EPSRC has developed in order stimulate creativity and facilitate horizon-scanning.”


EPSRC Press office