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Nao robot used by researchers to implement machine ethics

By Damir Beciri
9 November 2010

machine-ethics-robot-naoBy using information about specific ethical dilemmas supplied to them by ethicists, computers can effectively “learn” ethical principles in a process called machine learning. A team of researchers programmed Nao robot (toddler-sized robot we wrote about in our article about RoboCup 2009) with an ethical principle that was discovered by a computer. This learned principle could allow robots to develop a more natural way of human-robot interaction.

The team consists of Susan Anderson, Professor emerita of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences of the University of Connecticut, and her husband Michael Anderson, Associate Professor at the Department of Computer Science of the University of Hartford, who work in this relatively new field of research, called machine ethics, that’s only about 10 years old.

Susan points out that there are several prima facie duties the robot must weigh in their scenario, such as enabling the patient to receive potential benefits from taking the medicine, preventing harm to the patient that might result from not taking the medication, and respecting the person’s right of autonomy. These prima facie duties must be correctly balanced to help the robot decide when to remind the patient to take medication and whether to leave the person alone or to inform a caregiver, such as a doctor, if the person has refused to take the medicine.

Michael said that although their research is in its early stages, it’s important to think about ethics alongside developing artificial intelligence. Above all, he and Susan want to refute the science fiction portrayal of robots harming human beings.

“We should think about the things that robots could do for us if they had ethics inside them”, Michael said. “We’d allow them to do more things for us, and we’d trust them more.”

The Andersons organized the first international conference on machine ethics in 2005, and they have a book on machine ethics being published by Cambridge University Press. In the future, they envision computers continuing to engage in machine learning of ethics through dialogues with ethicists concerning real ethical dilemmas that machines might face in particular environments.

“Machines would effectively learn the ethically relevant features, prima facie duties, and ultimately the decision principles that should govern their behavior in those domains”, said Susan.

Although this is a vision of the future of machine ethics research, Susan thinks that artificial intelligence has already changed her chosen field in major ways. She thinks that working in machine ethics, which forces philosophers who are used to thinking abstractly to be more precise in applying ethics to specific, real-life cases, might actually advance the study of ethics.

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