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To the future: finding the common moral ground in human-robot relations

Designers who use ethics to shape better companion robots will end up making better humans, too, say UNSW researchers.

Ethics need to play a greater role in how robots are created and in the way people interact with them, says a new paper led by UNSW researchers

AI robots are still not sophisticated enough to understand humans or the complexity of social situations, says UNSW’s Dr Masimiliano Cappuccio.

“So we need to think about how we interact with social and companion robots to instead help us become more aware of our own behaviour, limitations, vices or bad habits,” says Dr Cappuccio, the Deputy Director of Values in Defense and Security Technology at UNSW Canberra.

“And this can be in the areas of greater self-discipline and self-control but also in learning virtues such as generosity and empathy.”

Dr Cappuccio is the lead author of Can Robots Make Us Better Humans? Virtuous Robotics and the Good Life with Artificial Agents which was written in collaboration with UNSW Art & Design’s Dr Eduardo Sandoval and Professor Mari Velonaki along with academics from the University of Western Sydney and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden

It is also the first in a collection co-edited by Dr Cappuccio, Dr Sandoval and Prof. Velonaki and published in the International Journal of Robotics as a special issue titled Virtuous Robotics: Artificial Agents and the Good Life.

The paper argues that because social robots are able to shape human beliefs and emotions, then people need to include ethical principles in their design and our interactions with them.

Dr Cappuccio says we need to incorporate virtue ethics — “an ancient philosophy of self-betterment and human flourishing”.

“Instead of trying to build robots that imitate our ethical decision-making processes, we should consider our own interactions with robots as an opportunity of human betterment and moral learning,” he says.

AI technology in Virtuous Robotics theory acts like a mirror on human behaviour and encourages the user to be more mindful, Dr Cappuccio says. “It puts you in front of yourself and asks you to become aware of what you are doing.”

It is in these instances, says Dr Sandoval, a robotics specialist from UNSW Art & Design, that Virtuous Robotics looks at how we can use AI technology to make us better as human beings “in self-improvement, education and in creating good habits, with the ultimate goal being about us becoming better people”.

Multidisciplinary approach
Prof. Velonaki agrees with Dr Cappuccio’s approach to machine ethics, and as someone who has been building robots for at least 20 years, she says the industry needs to take this multi-disciplinary approach.

“It’s not complementary, it is essential. And it has to be there from the very beginning when designing a system,” she says. “You need to have people who are doing interactive design, ethicists, people from the social sciences, artificial intelligence, and mechatronics.

“Because we’re not talking about systems that are isolated in a factory manufacturing cars, we’re talking about systems that in the near future will be implemented within a social structure.”

Prof. Velonaki says we need to start thinking about some of these existential questions now as AI technology advances. “Because maybe in 30 years from now systems might be a lot more a biotech — combining the biological and technical.”

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