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How can we realise the full potential of robots while maintaining public trust?

That sensationalist headline from a Sunday newspaper raises concerns about the development and use of robots – how can we ensure that people trust the technology?

Speaking at Robots: faithful servants or existential threat? part of UK Robotics Week 2016 – Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory joined a panel looking to address a range of ethical questions relating to robotics and autonomous systems. Robot ethics aims to understand the ethical implications and consequences of robotic technology; in particular, autonomous robots.

While the panel agreed that robotics and autonomous systems were generating real benefits for society – for example, driving innovation in surgery and healthcare – it was crucial that, at a time when cyber attacks, hacking and security issues were challenging the protection of personal data – it was vital that trust in robots was not undermined.

Accepting that the potential benefits of robotics are immense, the panel agreed that scientists need to ‘innovate responsibly’ and that robots need to be ‘engineered to a very high standard’.

Prof Winfield said there was a real need for an ethical discussion when it came to robotic innovation, as ethics would underpin any standards and regulations which would be crucial in effectively assessing and mitigating the risks associated with robotics technologies.

Work is already underway. A robotics ethical working group published the world’s first guide to the ethical design of robots and autonomous system in April 2016.

But, said Prof Winfield, any standards will need to have teeth to underpin any future regulations. He pointed to the passenger airline industry as one which is regulated, but which has an ‘amazing’ safety record, deploying a ‘reverse and transparent process for air accident investigations’.

Prof Winfield said there is a strong case for an equivalent body to the Civil Aviation Authority to oversee driverless cars. “Without a regulated framework,” he noted, “it is difficult to see how the technology will succeed in winning consumer confidence.”

Inevitably, just a day after this event, Tesla announced that one of its vehicles had been involved in a fatal accident.

Timing, they say, is everything.

Neil Tyler

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