5 Urgent Problems about Robots and Ethics

robots, ethics, robotics
robots, ethics, robotics

We blinked our eyes, and all of a sudden we find ourselves looking at a tomorrow that includes robots. Some of us grew up watching the fabulous cartoon “The Jetsons”, and now we are gradually witnessing that world materialize right before our eyes.

Robot Uses

Yet the great minds of today have taken that vision well beyond a society seen on a space cartoon. These creators of robotics have taken innovation to incredible levels. Here are examples of the fascinating tasks that robotics are either doing now or will be soon:

Hazardous Structural Inspections¹ — Robots have proven to be quite valuable for inspecting structures that are dangerous for humans. For instance, robots are perfect for inspecting the structural integrity of things like bridges, oil rigs, skyscrapers, and even structures on the ocean floor. They are not only better at inspecting than humans are, but they are also consistent, and humans no longer have to risk their lives with routine inspections.

Wildlife Protection² — Scientists have already been using drones to monitor wild animals as a means of ensuring their health and sustainability. Robots provide the means of observing thousands of species and protecting them from extinction. Many of these animals are too dangerous for humans to directly interact with, so robots are the perfect solution.

Specialized Medical Tasks³ — Most of us think about robots as being huge and bigger than life, but the fact is that many of them are quite small and even tiny. These tiny robots will be performing many specialized medical tasks like cleaning our teeth and performing surgeries.

Monitoring Atmospheres of Planets⁴ — Yes, you read that right. The tiniest of robots called “smart dust” will have the ability to be rapidly deployed anywhere. One of the potential future tasks for smart dust is to monitor the atmospheres of Jupiter and Mars.

Automated Transportation⁵ — Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen the recent advances in self-driving cars. It is just a matter of time before this technology is perfected and reliable enough to use permanently. From this point, we will see automated bus and taxi services. And this will be followed by flying cars, and eventually space travel.

These examples were pretty much a pipedream some 20 or 30 years ago. Yet now, some are already in service, and the others will be a reality soon. Keep in mind that this is only a small number of robotic uses. There are thousands of other uses already in the works.

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Image for post

Consequences of a Robotic World

While we marvel at the recent developments in the world of robotics, it is easy to overlook the pitfalls that will also exist. Proprietors in particular don’t want to hear about the downside of their latest creations.

This is what happened back in the 1980s and 1990s when personal computers were being developed. The primary focus of personal computer creators and companies was on functionality and usability — when security should have been a major focus as well. As a result, our personal information gets hacked and compromised on a daily basis⁶.

Therefore, today we must consider and take action on the potential issues that could be encountered with the use of robots. If you let your mind wander, it is easy to imagine what terrible things could go wrong with robotics.

This is one time when we shouldn’t listen only to the capitalists who are eager to create markets in this new frontier.

5 Ethical Concerns with the Use of Robots

As new uses for robots are created, so are potential pitfalls and concerns. It just comes with the territory. Perhaps the most alarming of these are ethical.

Let us examine five (5) primary ethical concerns that come with the use of robotics:

robots, mistakes
robots, mistakes

What Happens When Robots Make a Mistake?

Contrary to what many people may believe, robots are going to make mistakes occasionally. This is because machine learning requires some time to be useful. While robots should be given ample time to learn before being put to task, there will be unique situations that they haven’t faced before.

Suppose a specialized surgical robot botches a surgery and someone dies as a result? Who’s to blame — a human or a robot? More importantly, who would be legally responsible⁷ — the technician, the robot creator, or the medical facility?

robots that kill
robots that kill

Should Robots be allowed to kill?

While predator drones that kill enemies have been in use for over a decade, it is humans who make the final decision. However, many forms of AI today are capable of creating their software updates and renewing itself.

There is no doubt that robots will be quite able of making life and death decisions in the very near future⁸. Should we give robots this much power and responsibility?

The self-driving car industry has already been dealing with this issue to a degree⁹. In the event of an imminent car crash, should the main priority of a robot car be to minimize loss of life or to protect its passengers?

robots replacing humans
robots replacing humans

Should Robots be allowed to Eliminate Human Jobs?

The biggest concern about robots within the general public is whether these robots will take away good-paying jobs from humans¹⁰. If true, should this be permitted to happen? Is technological progress more beneficial to the common good than the loss of jobs?

A second concern here is how robots might increase the wealth inequality that already exists in our society. Under such conditions, it is believed that the elite class will actually control the AI that is displacing human jobs, and this will only displace more jobs.

Many experts believe that the government will have to pay stipends to displaced workers. This may be the only way to embrace new robotic technology in the workplace.

robots go rogue
robots go rogue

Could Robots ever go Rogue?

For those of us who are super paranoid, this is perhaps the scariest outcome of using robots¹¹. What would we do if a robot went off the rails and began disobeying orders?

Since AI is capable of both making mistakes or of updating its software, then it is certainly plausible that it could develop self-awareness. The question is whether or not this newfound self-awareness would develop ambition or be content with taking orders from humans?

Most of us have witnessed this scenario many times on TV and in movies like Terminator. And it rarely ends well for the human race.

bias ai robots
bias ai robots

Do Robots show any kind of bias?

Can robots become bias? Many experts argue that AI does not possess any kind of moral compass, so if they have a bias, then it is because of how the robots are trained.

Bias becomes a bigger concern with robots as AI learns things like face and voice recognition. Earlier studies have indicated these types of systems do have biases¹². And these biases are attributed to biases in both humans that operate the AI and data that is used for learning and reference.

[1]: Umar Ali. (June 24, 2019). Robot revolution: five robotics developments in offshore oil and gas. https://www.offshore-technology.com/features/robotics-oil-gas/

[2]: Maria Gallucci. (January 12, 2017). These robots are transforming how we see wildlife. https://mashable.com/2017/01/12/robots-wildlife-photography/

[3]: Stefan Roschi. (November 21, 2019). Tiny Surgical Robots Require Equally Tiny Components. https://www.roboticsbusinessreview.com/content-from-our-sponsor/tiny-surgical-robots-require-equally-tiny-components/

[4]: Dan Rowninski. (November 14, 2013). Connected Air: Smart Dust Is The Future Of The Quantified World. https://readwrite.com/2013/11/14/what-is-smartdust-what-is-smartdust-used-for/

[5]: John Koetsier. (June 9, 2020). Elon Musk: Tesla Will Have Level 5 Self-Driving Cars This Year. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2020/07/09/elon-musk-tesla-will-have-level-5-self-driving-cars-this-year/

[6]: Hugh Taylor. Digital Downfall: Technology, Cyberattacks and the End of the American Republic. Intrados Publishing, 2020.

[7]: Anicka Slachta. (April 08, 2019). The blame game: Who takes responsibility for AI’s mistakes? https://www.aiin.healthcare/topics/robotics/who-takes-responsibility-ais-mistakes

[8]: Douglas Heaven. (July 5, 2017). The ethics issue: Should we give robots the right to kill? https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23531331-000-the-ethics-issue-should-we-give-robots-the-right-to-kill/

[9]: Chris Fox. (October 26, 2018). Driverless cars: Who should die in a crash? https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-45991093

[10]: Alexa Lardieri. (June 26, 2019). Robots Will Replace 20 Million Jobs by 2030, Oxford Report Finds. https://www.usnews.com/news/economy/articles/2019-06-26/report-robots-will-replace-20-million-manufacturing-jobs-by-2030

[11]: Margi Murphy. (October 11, 2017). Future AI could ‘go rogue’ and turn on humans. https://nypost.com/2017/10/11/future-ai-could-go-rogue-and-turn-on-humans/

[12]: Bernard Marr. (January 29, 2019). Artificial Intelligence Has A Problem With Bias, Here’s How To Tackle It. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2019/01/29/3-steps-to-tackle-the-problem-of-bias-in-artificial-intelligence/

Written by

Retired Scientist and Jogger. Experienced online publisher since 2006.

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