Will new standards help control the rise of the robots?

1 min read

The rise of the robots is essentially a reality. While the adoption of robots is accelerating so too are the warnings about how they will impact on the way people work or whether they will take their place altogether.

Advanced robotics, when combined with greater intelligence, has been throwing up an increasing number of ethical questions so that last year the British Standards Institute published a new set of guidelines to help developers and manufacturers design more ethically sound robots.

Ethically sound? Well, when science fiction writer Isaac Asimov provided us with the basic rules of what constitutes good robot behaviour: don’t harm humans, obey orders and protect yourself, it’s doubtful he would have appreciated how pervasive robots would become in everyday life.

This new document, BS8611, addresses issues that could themselves have been drawn from fiction such as: robot deception, addiction and the possibility of self-learning systems exceeding their remits.

According to the BSI all of these constitute hazards that manufacturers need to start taking into account.

When the standards were first published Alan Winfield, a professor of robotics at the University of the West of England, said that they represented, “the first step towards embedding ethical values into robotics and AI”.

The BSI document begins with some broad ethical principles, i.e. humans, not robots, are the responsible agents but also considers far more contentious issues such as whether an emotional bond should be permissible if the robot has been designed to interact with a child or an elderly person.

The code suggests designers should aim for increased transparency when designing and programming robots otherwise there is the real prospect of racist or sexist robots evolving.

Think that is still science fiction? Not really, when you consider that technologies designed to flag up suspicious people are using racial profiling and there are a growing number of cases where facial recognition programmes are failing to identify black faces as easily as white ones.

The standards from the BSI also consider the prospects of machines going rogue and our possible over-dependence on robots.

Robots and automation techniques have proven themselves and are efficient, flexible and adaptable and are an essential part of manufacturing as well as in an increasing number of sectors within the broader economy.

However, if their deployment is to continue and to be a success, then it will be essential that ethical issues and hazards such as dehumanisation of humans or over-dependence on robots, are both identified and addressed.