Technology
March 18, 2015

Are we ready for robots?

Canada’s federal government has begun to provide financial support for innovations in robotics. For example, the National Science and Engineering Council of Canada is funding the Canadian Field Robotics Network, a collaborative initiative of researchers in government, academia and the private sector aimed at developing robotic technologies to meet Canada’s needs in such areas as patrolling borders in the Arctic, dealing with oil spills or nuclear accidents, and assisting the elderly.

Other initiatives include the Build in Canadian Innovation Program of Public Works and Government Services that supports such innovations as the Aeryon Scout Unmanned Aerial System designed for surveillance, reconnaissance and inspection. And Engineering Services Inc., a private sector company, is collaborating with the University Health Network in Toronto to develop a robotic device to help with prostate surgery.

Yet it’s time to sound the alert about the rise of robots. They are becoming a ubiquitous feature of industrialized countries and will soon have a substantial impact on public organizations. Bill Gates and other electronic technology experts anticipate that the use of robots will, within a few decades, be as commonplace as computers are today. Japan and South Korea are frequently cited as planning to have a robot in every home by 2020. The increased use of robots will have a major influence on governments’ policy, regulatory and service functions.

While advances in robotics present many opportunities to improve the performance and reduce the costs of government, they also raise difficult ethical, social, legal and management issues.

A large number of books and movies (e.g., I, Robot, Terminator) portray unrealistic utopian or dystopian images of robots, usually in the form of science fiction scenarios. As a result, many people are inclined to minimize reports of significant advances in robotics and the potential implications of these advances for public organizations. In addition, the word robot often conjures up visions of the industrial robots commonly used in manufacturing that are now vastly outnumbered around the world by “service” robots.

The remarkable variety of service robots ranges all the way from androids and humanoids to robot vacuums and robot pets. The two main types of service robots are personal or domestic robots (e.g., those providing home care assistance) and professional robots (e.g., those providing surgical assistance). The development and manufacture of most service robots are still very costly, but robotics experts predict that in North America a wide assortment of service robots will soon be available commercially at a reasonable price.

Robots can operate on land, under water, in the air and in space. Patrick Lin, a leading expert on the ethical and social impact of robotics, notes that the most significant current innovations include:

• Human-robot interaction, in the factory, home, hospital, and many other venues where social interaction by robots is possible;
• Display and recognition of emotions by robots;
• Humanoid robots equipped with controllable arms as well as legs;
• Multiple robot systems; and,
• Autonomous systems, including automobiles, aircraft, and underwater vehicles.

Many Canadians know about the use of robotics in the form of the mechanical limb named Canadarm used on space shuttle missions and celebrated on Canada’s new five dollar bill. Less well-known are such initiatives as using robotic cameras that travel through water mains and sanitary sewers to identify the need for repairs.

Outside Canada, much attention has focused on the U.S. military’s deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, and of bomb-defusing robots. Also well-known is the use of robots by law enforcement officials in apprehending suspected criminals (e.g. the Boston Marathon bombers), and the work of the rover robots in conducting science experiments on Mars. Heavy investment in robotics technology has produced a large number and variety of robots in Europe, Japan and South Korea.

The rise of robotics will affect some policy fields and, therefore, some government departments and agencies more than others. Among the major beneficiaries will be social services, health and medical care, environmental protection, and the military. The impact of robots on public organizations can be illustrated by reference to their current and anticipated application to home care for the elderly and health/medical care. In countries like Japan and South Korea robotics innovations in these fields are being driven in large part by demographic considerations – the population is aging more rapidly than elsewhere and falling birthrates are expected to reduce the number of caregivers in the workforce.

Robots have been developed or are being designed to perform such tasks as assisting elderly persons to wash, eat and move from room to room and helping them to vacuum their homes and cut their grass. A robot named Carebot is reported to be able to monitor senior citizens and remind them when to take their medications. Carebot can also carry on some conversation, thereby serving as a therapeutic companion to help reduce the feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression often experienced by the elderly.

Already available for the same purpose are robot pets like Paro, a lovable baby seal that moves and makes sounds when petted. Some of these home care robots will also function as nurse robots caring for elderly persons who move into a residential facility or hospital and for younger, but disabled, persons.

A considerable array of health and medical robots are now in operation or being developed in such areas as surgery, prosthetics and exoskeletons, rehabilitation treatment, and mental, cognitive and social therapy. A substantial number of hospitals are using the da Vinci robot surgical system to conduct minimally invasive surgery, and RP-VITA robots, equipped with a video screen, can navigate to patients’ rooms so that doctors can see and talk to patients from a remote location.

The large volume of robotics research by engineers and computer scientists is rapidly being complemented by that of humanities and social science scholars concerned with the ethical and, to a lesser extent, the social, legal and economic aspects of the field. The ethical implications of collateral damage resulting from U.S. drone attacks have already been widely discussed.

The actual and envisaged use of other service robots raises challenging ethical questions. For example, under what circumstances is it ethical to transfer aspects of elderly care from human caregivers to robotic ones? How can robotic caregivers monitor the activities of elderly persons without infringing on their privacy? What are the ethical implications of encouraging elderly persons to use robotic pets or dolls for therapeutic purposes, especially if this results in emotional attachments to robots? To what extent should the elderly be able to consent to such uses? How safe is the use of robots in the hospital operating theatre? What is the ethical tradeoff between the benefits of minimally invasive surgery and the risk of medical robotics?

A key ethical issue is the question of who is responsible if robots cause harm to human beings. Is the designer, the manufacturer, the programmer, the owner or the user responsible? How can governments ensure that somebody is responsible?

Anticipated rapid advances in robotics technology and the consequent innovative use of robots will bring these questions increasingly to the fore and add new ones. Consider, for example, the legal and social as well as the ethical issues raised by the prospect of robots serving as sex workers. Consider also the issues raised by the anticipated use of robot soldiers in warfare.

A substantial number of serious and seasoned scholars believe that advances in robotics will eventually bring about a period of “machine morality” in which robots will be developed as artificial moral agents exercising significant, but varying, degrees of ethical autonomy. Ethicists and roboticists are vigorously debating the appropriate ethical principles to be programmed into robots and the extent to which such principles are computable.

For the near future the ethical behaviour of robots will be in the hands of humans, either through remote control (as with surgical robots) or by programming robots with specific rules. Even at this stage, however, those involved in the creation and operation of robots need ethical guidance, not only on how robots should be used but also on whether in certain circumstances they should be used at all (e.g., robot pets for elderly persons with dementia). Thus, public organizations will need to focus attention on developing an ethics regime for the use of robots, including codes of ethics.

Experience to date has shown that getting agreement on the content of a robotics code is a difficult task. But if electronics experts are correct in predicting a trajectory for robotics similar to that of computers, the demand for ethical intelligence and standards in this realm will expand quickly. Moreover, grappling with the ethical dimension of robotics will inform decisions as to what rules, regulations and laws may be needed to govern its use.

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