Model behaviour

Dr Gianmarco Veruggio says a European robotic charter to address ethical issues is essential.


Robotics is rapidly becoming one of the leading fields of science and technology. Soon humanity will coexist with a new class of technological artefacts.

Robots can help humans with several activities and solve many problems, from amusing youngsters to safeguarding our planet. While not all these applications will raise ethical, social or psychological problems, as in every other field of science and technology, sensitive areas will open up. It is the responsibility of scientists and technicians who work in the field and understand the technology to face these new social and ethical problems.

As robots are applied to society in ever greater numbers, they will trigger widespread social and economic change, for which public and private policy must now prepare.

Technological change continually disrupts employment patterns, and machines have already replaced people in a variety of jobs. This trend will increase as machines become more intelligent. When they have the ability to think, reason, and interact more with their environment we will lose our advantage over them. They will be able to perform tasks faster and with more accuracy than any person.

All these opportunities bring with them new ethical challenges involving the deployment of robots, ubiquitous sensing systems, direct neural interfaces, invasive nano-devices and other technologies that, alone or in combination, allow for new models of human-machine interface and technology control than have been available so far. We can foresee new challenges to privacy and access, along with technical issues of implant integrity, robot robustness, network connectedness and software autonomy. Think forward to biorobotics; to military applications of robotics; to robots in children’s rooms.

This is the reason why, since 2004 in Sanremo, Italy, leading roboticists have been getting together to examine the problems inherent to robotics in society.

Roboethics is an applied ethics the object of which is to develop scientific/cultural/ technical tools that can be shared by different social groups and beliefs. These tools aim to promote and encourage the development of robotics for the advancement of human society and individuals and help prevent its misuse against Man.

Guidelines for the ethical application of robotics to society should come out from trans-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary discussions held by scientists and scholars of humanities. Different cultures, religions and approaches should be taken into account. International forums should be organised, sponsored by alliances such as Unesco and the EU, with the help of professional organisations and associations.

Roboethics is human-centred. It is not the ethics of robots, because to have ethics you need a person with his/her free will and a freedom to act — which is not true of robots.

It is the ethics of the scientists and designers and of robot users. In the first instance, guidelines could simply apply the principles adopted in many other sensitive fields: the precautionary principle and the ethical guidelines of many professional organisations.

The broad interest in the subject is demonstrated by the fact that in some universities, study centres have opened to debate the multiple tracks of discussion and also to develop some specific case studies of applications.

In April it was reported that the south Korean government was drawing up an ethical charter for robots — an important step for a nation so developed in robotics. I think it will be a long-to-medium term study, because a charter should comprise answers to questions. However, in the field of roboethics we are still in the phase of identifying the real questions.

The Japanese government is also studying guidelines for the design and use of robots in society. These initiatives follow the European project funded by the European Robotics Research Network, which produced the first Roboethics Roadmap.

All these efforts are welcome and make us hope that the endeavour of developing an applied ethics in real-time, inside the process of development of a new technology, will be successful.



Dr Gianmarco Veruggio is president of the school of robotics in Genoa. He coined the word roboethics, and chairs the IEEE-Robotics and Automation society technical committee on roboethics