Homework 1 - Robotics and Ethics

Due Wednesday, January 23, 2002

NOTE: This assignment, like others in this class, is due at the beginning of the class period. This means that if you are even a minute late, you lose 20%. If you are worried about potentially being late, turn in your homework ahead of time. Do this by submitting them to me during office hours or by sliding it under my office door. Do not send assignments to me through email or leave them in my departmental mail box.

Ethics is a concern for professionals in all fields -- robotics is no different in this respect. There are some concerns that roboticists face that are shared with practitioners in other fields; some concerns may be unique to roboticists.

To begin with, robots act in the physical world -- if they make mistakes they can easily injure or kill people, cause damage to property, etc. What are our ethical responsibilities in ensuring that the robots we help to create do not inadvertently cause harm when being used by operators?

Additionally, autonomous robots may act without supervision -- unlike other mechanical devices we expect autonomous robots to be literally out of (human) control much of the time. In fact, in some applications, we may wish to prevent people from taking control of the robot as it acts to prevent them from sabotaging its mission. What are our ethical responsibilities, then, to be sure that the robot will not cause harm when acting on its own? Conversely, what are our ethical responsibilities to ensure that people who would intentionally use our robots for harm are not able to take control of them?

There is also the question of robots taking over jobs currently done by people. This may result in a liberation of people from jobs that are "dirty, dull, and dangerous" and free them for more interesting and rewarding activities. However, it could also result in a loss of "unskilled" jobs, further marginalizing those who need them. What are our ethical responsibilities to ensure that what we are doing does not leave vulnerable individuals without means of support?

Coming at robotics from the other direction, what are the implications of the fact that we are trying to make our robots intelligent for the tasks we ask them to carry out? That is, while we have said that robots are good for jobs that are "dirty, dull, and dangerous," is it ethical (or, for that matter, moral), to ask a highly intelligent entity to carry out these kinds of tasks, simply on the basis that this particular entity is artificial?

These are just some of the questions that we, as roboticists, need to ask ourselves. I'm sure that you can come up with more.

The assignment.

On your own, locate the code of ethics of a professional organization. This could be an organization of professional roboticists or an organization of professionals in a related area. Answer the following questions:

What to turn in.

Turn in a typed copy of your answers to these questions. In total, your answers should run from 1.5 to 2 pages in length (roughly 80 characters per line, 50 lines per page). You should also turn in a copy of the ethics code you have located and clearly indicate its source.