Grounding Machine Ethics within the Natural System

Grounding Machine Ethics within the Natural System

Jared Gassen (JMG Advising, USA) and Nak Young Seong (Independent Scholar, South Korea)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8592-5.ch003


This chapter explores machine ethics within the larger context of the natural system from which it springs. While computing power and computing machines have grown exponentially since the twentieth century, the foundation for this growth is the planet's natural resources, which may not be able to sustain this type of continual exponential growth. This chapter explores some of the basic natural limiting factors that may prohibit computing power if solutions are not found. Specifically, the chapter explores limitations from: population growth, e-waste, rare earth minerals, water, oil, and energy production. Within this context, possible solutions for producing machines ethically are briefly explored.
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As computing power advances, it also advances humanity’s ability to produce increasingly advanced machines, which have increasing amounts of autonomy and decision-making powers, creating an increased importance of machine ethics (Moor, 2006). Hence, the various submissions for this book and the interesting questions they discuss. However, in addition to the very important questions of how to make machines behave ethically, comes the often-overlooked question of whether to produce a machine at all, regardless of whether or not that machine will then behave ethically, based on the natural realities of this planet and the resources required to produce them. It is this necessary grounding of machine ethics within the natural system that seems to be frequently overlooked and will be the focus of this chapter. It seems that those whose job it is to build and discuss computing machines are more likely to talk about our mastery of nature rather than our place within it. This chapter takes a different approach and may come to outcomes that are unexpected.

The ubiquity of machines and robots in our everyday world continues to rapidly rise. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) (2014), in 2012 alone, about three million service robots for personal and domestic use were sold, 20% more than in 2011 and the value of sales increased to US$1.2 billion. IFR projections for sales between 2013-2016 predict huge increases in the field and sales of about US$17.1 billion. It projects sales of all types of robots for domestic tasks could reach almost 15.5 million units in that period of time. The market for toy and hobby robots is forecast to be about 3.5 million units, and another three million robots to be produced for education and research. The IFR also predicts that robots for the handicapped and elderly will increase substantially in the next twenty years as well (International Federation of Robotics, 2013).

Robots are also a booming industry in military applications. When the U.S. started wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, there were no ground robots. In 2009, there were over 12,000 ground and 7,000 aerial robots in use (Lin, 2009). Scott Hartley, co-founder of 5D Robotics, one of several businesses creating military robots for the U.S. government, said, “Ten years from now [2023], there will probably be one soldier for every ten robots. Each soldier could have one or five robots flanking him, looking for enemies, scanning for land mines” (Diaz, 2013). While this may be a wishful projection from someone who stands to make a lot of money from its fulfillment, the trend is clear. The rise of military machines is already here, and the level of autonomy for these machines continues to rise as well, raising additional ethical concerns that need to be addressed by academics and the public (Lichocki, Kahn, & Billard, 2011).

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