Robotics, Ethics, and the Environment

Robotics, Ethics, and the Environment

Jason Borenstein (Georgia Institute of Technology, USA)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/jte.2012040103
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As robots become more pervasive and take on an ever-growing number of tasks, exploring ethical issues relating to the technology takes on increasing importance. Specifically, the manufacturing and sale of personal service robots could be severely detrimental to the environment. Ideally, members of the robotics community would develop a comprehensive awareness of the complex ethical and environmental consequences emerging from their design pathways before historical patterns are repeated.
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2. Why Robots?

As time passes, the number and type of robots used in industrial and military sectors and in our personal lives is expected to grow rapidly. For example, the U.S. government recently announced the creation of the National Robotics Initiative, a program aimed at facilitating the growth of the technology (Guizzo, 2011). Key incentives for industry include streamlining processes and maximizing profits. The U.S. military has disclosed its goal to automate a sizeable portion of its forces in part to minimize loss of life (U.S. Department of Defense, 2001). Admittedly, at least some of ethical issues raised herein might not be unique to robotic technology. But drawing attention to the specific design features of personal service robots, as opposed to other technologies, is paramount because the market for them is relatively new and the onset of the robotic age may be nearing. In short, there is an opportunity to address environmental concerns relating to the design of robots before the public fully embraces the technology.

Articulating a sharp distinction between robots and other technologies is difficult to do, but Clarke (1993) identifies properties such as “programmability,” “mechanical capability,” and “flexibility” that help characterize a robot. Moreover, the “sense-think-act” paradigm can be used as guide in terms of what counts as a “robot” (Siegel, 2003). In other words, robots are typically capable of detecting external stimuli, processing that stimuli, and then performing an action based on some sort of decision-making procedure. What makes a robot rather unique as compared to other technologies is that this sequence of events can occur with little or no input from a human user. In other words, robots are typically programmed to perform self-directed actions. Robots often have a physical body and the capacity for motion. They do not necessarily have a humanoid appearance though some of them do (or eventually will).

The present discussion will center on a subset of robotic technology; ones used by the individual consumer. The label might be somewhat imprecise, but for simplicity sake, they will be referred to as “personal service robots.” The potential applications for personal service robots are manifold; some have not been fully envisioned. Unlike industrial robots, robots of this type are supposed to be brought into the home, perhaps to be a “pet” or a “friend” for a child. Other personal service robots can take on tasks such as providing in-home security, housecleaning, or looking after young children and serving as their tutors. Scholars are beginning to address the ethics of allowing robots to take care of nursing home residents since their use in that context seems to be approaching (Sparrow & Sparrow, 2006). Levy (2008) anticipates that robots will become “romantic” companions for human beings.

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