Can robots be moral beings?

In short, we can make robots which display altruistic behaviour but they aren’t moral agents because we create them, says Joanna Bryson from Bath University. And what’s more we should not pretend that they are. 

Speaking at a London Futurists session today she said the key difference between robots and children is that, although we can guide the development of children, ultimately they are free agents.  We make robots entirely so the can’t be said to have moral agency.

But there are powerful forces at work. We humans have an overwhelming urge to impute agency on all sorts of animate and inanimate objects – think dogs and cats, and stuffed rabbits.

Soldiers using the bomb disposal robots in Iraq got very attached to them and would rescue them and want them repaired rather than being replaced by a new robot.

But, she says, there are serious moral hazards involved in treating robots as morally responsible. “Governments and manufacturers are going to want the robots to be responsible so they don’t have to pay when things go wrong.” Take the “killer robots” which are very much in the news at the moment. It isn’t the robots that are the killers, she argues. It is the politicians who have ultimate responsibility for the cost/benefit trade-offs programmed into them. But that is not how it is likely to be portrayed if something goes wrong.

joanna brysonDespite the apparent attractiveness of developing AI robots in our image, Bryson argues it probably doesn’t make any sense to try to make robots more like us.

“All the things that are important to us are because of our evolution, because we are apes.” Not only does imputing our values to robots not make sense, it may even be counterproductive. “It may not make them any better.”

And she doesn’t worry about crossing some magic line where one minute we don’t have AI and the next minute we do – the so-called intelligence explosion.

Neither does she believe that just because of AI the world is suddenly in danger of being turned into a giant paperclip factory as Nick Bostrom has suggested, pointing out that we are already doing that to the world, albeit making more than just paperclips.

She believes things won’t be like that and AI is simply getting better all the time (there are already AIs that pass the Turing Test, she argues). She does think, though, that we need to consider carefully how we want to proceed – much as we did with nuclear and chemical weapons.

For that reason she was involved with an initiative sponsored by the EPSRC and the AHRC to update Asimov’s famous laws of robotics.
Principles for designers, builders and users of robots

  • Robots are multi-use tools. Robots should not be designed solely or primarily to kill or harm humans, except in the interests of national security.
  • Humans, not robots, are responsible agents. Robots should be designed; operated as far as is practicable to comply with existing laws & fundamental rights & freedoms, including privacy.
  • Robots are products. They should be designed using processes which assure their safety and security
  • Robots are manufactured artefacts. They should not be designed in a deceptive way to exploit vulnerable users; instead their machine nature should be transparent.
  • The person with legal responsibility for a robot should be attributed

Thoughts on The Watch

There are a couple of things that have occurred to me about Apple’s latest new product line. The first is that fashion and rapid technology upgrade cycles don’t really mix.

Thinking about the evolution of the iPhone (a product whose significance has been compared to the Apple Watch)

apple watcheach new iteration was thinner, more powerful, and larger than the one before. In the case of the watch, I very much doubt the screen will become larger – wrists aren’t going to get any larger any time soon (though I suppose we could get a widescreen version at some point!) but undoubtedly they will be thinner and more powerful. With technology doubling in power every 12 to 18 months it would be remarkable if they didn’t.

That will be OK for those who paid £300-£400 for their watches – Apple customers have shown themselves to be quite happy shelling out this kind of fee every couple of years for an upgrade. But what does this mean for those customers who paid £10,000 for a gold watch? Will they be happy with a watch which is thicker and less powerful that the current model? Especially when a few years down the line it probably won’t even run with the latest version of iOS.

This could lead to some very dissatisfied customers – unless Apple comes up with a way to overcome this. One way might be to offer a technology upgrade service. Send in your £10,000 watch and Apple will retrofit the latest innards, upgrading your family heirloom to the latest, greatest tech. There are all sorts of implications and challenges with this approach – logistical and manufacturing complexity, weakening the bond between this year’s shape and desirability and so on.

And I don’t think a trade-in will work – people current buy expensive watches to keep, not to exchange in two years.

The second observation is not so much that the launch of the watch is the first time online has been pushed ahead of the physical experience – though that is obviously true. It is that mobile was where Apple was most prepared and efficient. At 8.05am we were still waiting for the Apple online store to come back online (it was promising to be open for buisness at 8.01am). The iPhone app, though, was functioning smoothly and to plan. The combination of a physical Apple Store as a showcase for the physical product, and the Apple app as the way to purchase seems to be the ideal future for Apple. After I had bought via the app I was invited to take a survey of the experience by Apple which asked a large number of detailed questions about the online experience. It seems they are determined to get it very right.