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Old 06-06-2012   #1
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Default Morals and Machines

Some excerpts from a recent editorial in The Economist that I found to be shareworthy:




As robots become more autonomous, the notion of computer-controlled machines facing ethical decisions is moving out of the realm of science fiction and into the real world. Society needs to find ways to ensure that they are better equipped to make moral judgments than HAL was.


Military technology, unsurprisingly, is at the forefront of the march towards self-determining machines. Its evolution is producing an extraordinary variety of species. The Sand Flea can leap through a window or onto a roof, filming all the while. It then rolls along on wheels until it needs to jump again. RiSE, a six-legged robo-cockroach, can climb walls. LS3, a dog-like robot, trots behind a human over rough terrain, carrying up to 180kg of supplies. SUGV, a briefcase-sized robot, can identify a man in a crowd and follow him. There is a flying surveillance drone the weight of a wedding ring, and one that carries 2.7 tonnes of bombs.

Robots are spreading in the civilian world, too, from the flight deck to the operating theatre. Passenger aircraft have long been able to land themselves. Driverless trains are commonplace. Volvo’s new V40 hatchback essentially drives itself in heavy traffic. ..............

As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming—or at least appearing to assume—moral agency. Weapons systems currently have human operators “in the loop”, but as they grow more sophisticated, it will be possible to shift to “on the loop” operation, with machines carrying out orders autonomously.

As that happens, they will be presented with ethical dilemmas. Should a drone fire on a house where a target is known to be hiding, which may also be sheltering civilians? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid pedestrians if that means hitting other vehicles or endangering its occupants? Should a robot involved in disaster recovery tell people the truth about what is happening if that risks causing a panic? Such questions have led to the emergence of the field of “machine ethics”, which aims to give machines the ability to make such choices appropriately—in other words, to tell right from wrong.

One way of dealing with these difficult questions is to avoid them altogether, by banning autonomous battlefield robots and requiring cars to have the full attention of a human driver at all times. ...................

Instead, society needs to develop ways of dealing with the ethics of robotics—and get going fast. In America states have been scrambling to pass laws covering driverless cars, which have been operating in a legal grey area as the technology runs ahead of legislation. It is clear that rules of the road are required in this difficult area, and not just for robots with wheels.

The best-known set of guidelines for robo-ethics are the “three laws of robotics” coined by Isaac Asimov, a science-fiction writer, in 1942. The laws require robots to protect humans, obey orders and preserve themselves, in that order. Unfortunately, the laws are of little use in the real world. Battlefield robots would be required to violate the first law. .................

Three laws for the laws of robotics

First, laws are needed to determine whether the designer, the programmer, the manufacturer or the operator is at fault if an autonomous drone strike goes wrong or a driverless car has an accident. In order to allocate responsibility, autonomous systems must keep detailed logs so that they can explain the reasoning behind their decisions when necessary. This has implications for system design: it may, for instance, rule out the use of artificial neural networks, decision-making systems that learn from example rather than obeying predefined rules.

Second, where ethical systems are embedded into robots, the judgments they make need to be ones that seem right to most people. The techniques of experimental philosophy, which studies how people respond to ethical dilemmas, should be able to help. Last, and most important, more collaboration is required between engineers, ethicists, lawyers and policymakers, all of whom would draw up very different types of rules if they were left to their own devices. Both ethicists and engineers stand to benefit from working together: ethicists may gain a greater understanding of their field by trying to teach ethics to machines, and engineers need to reassure society that they are not taking any ethical short-cuts.

Technology has driven mankind’s progress, but each new advance has posed troubling new questions. Autonomous machines are no different. The sooner the questions of moral agency they raise are answered, the easier it will be for mankind to enjoy the benefits that they will undoubtedly bring.
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