February 18, 2012

Patrick Lin tackles the 'big robot questions'

Writing in Slate, Patrick Lin addresses the social, legal, and ethical problems posed by the coming robotics revolution.
If a robot does make a mistake, it may be unclear who is responsible for any resulting harm. Product liability laws are largely untested in robotics and, anyway, continue to evolve in a direction that releases manufacturers from responsibility. With military robots, for instance, there is a list of characters throughout the supply chain who may be held accountable: the programmer, the manufacturer, the weapons legal-review team, the military procurement officer, the field commander, the robot’s handler, and even the president of the United States.

As robots become more autonomous, it may be plausible to assign responsibility to the robot itself, if it is able to exhibit enough of the features that typically define personhood. If this seems too far-fetched, consider that there is ongoing work in integrating computers and robotics with biological brains. A conscious human brain (and its body) presumably has human rights, and if we can replace parts of the brain with something else and not impair its critical functions, then we could continue those rights in something that is not fully human. We may come to a point where more than half of the brain or body is artificial, making the organism more robotic than human, which makes the issue of robot rights more plausible.

One natural way to think about minimizing risk of robotic harm is to program them to obey our laws or follow a code of ethics. Of course, this is much easier said than done, since laws can be too vague and context-sensitive for robots to understand, at least in the foreseeable future. Even the three (or four) laws of robotics in Isaac Asimov’s stories, as elegant and adequate as they first appear to be, fail to close many loopholes that result in harm.

Programming aside, the use of robots must also comply with existing law and ethics. And again, those rules and norms may be unclear or untested with respect to robots. For instance, the use of military robots may raise legal and ethical questions that we have yet to fully consider and that, in retrospect, may seem obviously unethical or unlawful.

No comments: