Why focus on making robots nice?

From Michael Anderson and Susan Leigh Anderson in Scientific American:

Today’s robots…face a host of ethical quandaries that push the boundaries of artificial intelligence, or AI, even in quite ordinary situations.

Imagine being a resident in an assisted-living facility…you ask the robot assistant in the dayroom for the remote …But another resident also wants the remote …The robot decides to hand the remote to her. …This anecdote is an example of an ordinary act of ethical decision making, but for a machine, it is a surprisingly tough feat to pull off.

We believe that the solution is to design robots able to apply ethical principles to new and unanticipated situations… for them to be welcome among us their actions should be perceived as fair, correct or simply kind. Their inventors, then, had better take the ethical ramifications of their programming into account…

It seems there are a lot of articles focussing on the problem that some of the small  decisions robots will make will be ‘ethical’. There are also many fearing that robots may want to do particularly unethical things, such as shoot people.

Working out how to make a robot behave ‘ethically’ in this narrow sense (arguably all behaviour has an ethical dimension) is an odd problem to set apart from the myriad other problems of making a robot behave usefully. Ethics doesn’t appear to pose unique technical problems. The aforementioned scenario is similar to ‘non-ethical’ problems of making a robot prioritise its behaviour. On the other hand, teaching a robot when to give a remote control to a certain woman is not especially generalisable to other ethical issues such as teaching it which sexual connotations it may use in front of children, except in sharing methods so broad as to also include many more non-ethical behaviours.

The authors suggests that robots will follow a few simple absolute ethical rules like Asimov’s. Perhaps this could unite ethical problems as worth considering together. However if robots are given such rules, they will presumably also be following big absolute rules for other things. For instance if ‘ethics’ is so narrowly defined as to include only choices such as when to kill people and how to be fair, there will presumably be other rules about the overall goals when not contemplating murder. These would matter much more than the ‘ethics’. So how to pick big rules and guess their far reaching effects would again not be an ethics-specific issue. On top of that, until anyone is close to a situation where they could be giving a robot such an abstract rule to work from, the design of said robots is so open as to make the question pretty pointless except as a novel way of saying ‘what ethics do I approve of?’.

I agree that it is useful to work out what you value (to some extent) before you program a robot to do it, particularly including overall aims. Similarly I think it’s a good idea to work out where you want to go before you program your driverless car to drive you there. This doesn’t mean there is any eerie issue of getting a car to appreciate highways when it can’t truly experience them. It also doesn’t present you with any problem you didn’t have when you had to drive your own car – it has just become a bit more pressing.

Rainbow Robot

Making rainbows has much in common with other manipulations of water vapor. Image by Jenn and Tony Bot via Flickr

Perhaps, on the contrary, ethical problems are similar in that humans have very nuanced ideas about them and can’t really specify satisfactory general principles to account for them. If the aim is for robots to learn how to behave just from seeing a lot of cases, without being told a rule, perhaps this is a useful category of problems to set apart? No – there are very few things humans deal with that they can specify directly. If a robot wanted to know the complete meaning of almost any word it would have to deal with a similarly complicated mess.

Neither are problems of teaching (narrow) ethics to robots united in being especially important, or important in similar ways, as far as I can tell. If the aim is about something like treating people well, people will be much happier if the robot gives the remote control to anyone rather than ignoring them all until it has finished sweeping the floors than if it gets the question of who to give it to correct. Yet how to get a robot to prioritise floor cleaning below remote allocating at the right times seems an uninteresting technicality, both to me and seemingly to authors of popular articles. It doesn’t excite any ‘ethics’ alarms. It’s like wondering how the control panel will be designed in our teleportation chamber: while the rest of the design is unclear, it’s a pretty uninteresting question. When the design is more clear, to most it will be an uninteresting technical matter. How robots will be ethical or kind is similar, yet it gets a lot of attention.

Why is it so exciting to talk about teaching robots narrow ethics? I have two guesses. One, ethics seems such a deep and human thing, it is engaging to frighten ourselves by associating it with robots. Two, we vastly overestimate the extent to which value of outcomes to reflects the virtue of motives, so we hope robots will be virtuous, whatever their day jobs are.

8 responses to “Why focus on making robots nice?

  1. The authors of that piece have elsewhere suggested that moral philosophers are rapidly converging on the unique correct moral theory and will probably have identified it within a few decades.

    The eeriness is probably connected to their brand of moral realism.

  2. A video concerning this research can be seen here:

    A pdf concerning the science/philosophy behind the hype is freely available here:

  3. Ethicists are the rock stars of philosophy. They are extra good – and get all the chicks. Machine intelligence programmers are the rock stars of computer science. Of course, *they* don’t get chicks – but everyone agrees that they are working on a really cool problem. So, machine intelligence plus ethical philosophy is – like – a double-dose of geek rockstardom – thus the appeal.

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why focus on making robots nice? | Meteuphoric -- Topsy.com

  5. robots are our kids, so this is our instinct talking, we feel urged to teach basic good / bad notions to them

    look at that robot, he´s so cute! he cant shoot anybody!

  6. Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Robot ethics returns

  7. Pingback: Robot ethics returns | Meteuphoric

  8. I think the reasoning is like this:
    Ethics are mysterious and only humans have ethics
    Therefore, ethics requires a soul
    Robots don’t have souls
    Therefore, robots can never have ethics

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