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The rights and wrongs of robots

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- From rebellious mechanoids taking over our lives to subservient droids that do our bidding, concepts of robots are often stuck in versions of fictional dystopia. But as fanciful as it seems, the issue of robot rights to protect both them and us is currently being debated by scientists and governments. But can robots ever know good from bad and what should we be more concerned about, robots abusing us, or bringing out our worst traits?

It was last year that the UK government commissioned a report suggesting robots in the future may be entitled to the same rights as humans, including things like health care.

Earlier this year the South Korean government went one step further when it set up a task force comprising of scientists and even a science fiction writer to draft a "Robot Ethics Charter" by April.

While the main considerations of the charter are preventing the illegal use of robots and protecting the data that they acquire, the task force set to draft the code have not overlooked programming ethical standards into the automatons of the future.

It all sounds reminiscent of science fiction author Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" that outlined the rules that robots should live by in order to live peacefully with humans.

However his fictional device only demonstrated that simple laws cannot govern the ethical questions of robots in society.

"Some countries are quite gung-ho about robots, while others, particularly in Europe are generally asking more realistic questions. Obviously South Korea is demonstrating that it is a hi-tech country [with its recent announcement]," Dr. Blay Whitby from University of Sussex's Department of Informatics, told CNN.

Robotics continues to infiltrate more aspects of our lives, from our cars to our homes, and it seems are set to take up residence with us in the future. In another moment of robot-boosting, South Korea's government promised domestic robots for all homes by 2020.

"The concepts of smart apartments -- one that is highly automated, perhaps with a humanoid robot element -- is however very do-able and saleable in about ten years," said Whitby.

Friend or foe: cultural attitudes

But do we need a set of rules governing their actions, to protect us from injury and them from abuse?

For Dr. Whitby, beyond basic safety concerns, cultural attitudes affect our views on robots in our lives.

"In Japan and South Korea there has always been a very positive view of robots and a near universal agreement that companies should be working to build robots that look after elderly people and help maintain their independence," he told CNN.

The rise of a robot rebellion that usurps humankind is a common theme in western science fiction and one that often clouds the reality of robot development.

"Science fiction has worked against us on this. It's part of the rules of fiction that robots must be human-like, that their behavior must be understandable to human psychology."

Whitby questions the belief that robots developed to assist our everyday lives need to be humanoid at all or imitate human psychology.

"Why should we want that, when we know that human psychology is flawed?"

Whose ethics are they anyway?

The European Robotics Research Network (Euron) has drafted a robot-rights road map. For them the idea of robots as moral entities isn't the most pressing issue. Like Whitby it sees the main focus not on the rights of the robot, but on the ethics of the robot designers and manufacturers.

"The real issue is that smart apartments and companion robots, like all computers and software will be made with their designers prejudices built in," said Whitby.

What would the average person think was a "good" robot? It's something that Whitby believes brings up tough ethical questions that need to be discussed and challenged in a wider sphere than the field of AI or robotics.

"You can't standardize these views across cultures, so there really is a need for public debate. These ethical questions should not be left to self-styled experts."

Dr. Kerstin Dautenhahn from the University of Hertfordshire is a prominent member of Cogniron, a European-wide project to develop a cognitive robot companion.

She dismisses the fears of scientists developing robots from behind closed doors that will regulate our lives.

"Robots are not quantitively different from other machines and shouldn't be treated as such," she told CNN. "They are intelligent, physical machines, but we're not in the business of creating devices that will take over our lives or giving them feelings."

"You don't have just one type of car, so I don't see a time in the future when there is just one robot for all."

Chances of buying an obsequious robot butler like Star Wars' C3PO or installing an omnipotent super-brain like HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey don't seem to be on the agenda.

"People always want to see something that looks like the Terminator, so are often disappointed by the reality of robots today," Whitby told CNN.

Bringing out our best or worst?

However there is plenty of work being on robots mimicking human emotions and developing automaton that can copy human facial expression.

"Many people may feel offended by a humanoid robot in their homes, so there will need to be a choice on what they look like and what function they fulfil," said Dautenhahn.

When it comes to human morality, there are some fears that human-looking robots look bring out the worst aspects of our personality.

"There is no doubt that robots will be built as companions that will be programmed to love us unconditionally. Will it mean we won't want to have real relationships with other people? Some might not think that's a bad thing." Whitby told CNN.

"People have underestimated the sex industry before and I expect it to be a big part of robots of the future. If there's money to be made from it, it will happen."

"Humans are very creative and any technology on the market will be adapted to fill a need," said Dautenhahn. "People have always done things that seem weird to others, that won't change. We just have to be very careful we protect the vulnerable, such as children and old people."


story.robot2.jpg

A Hubo Lab robot resembling Albert Einstein at the Nextfest Festival in New York in 2006.

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