Automata: The new “sci-fi” blockbuster set to put robot ethics under a spotlight

19 September 2014

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Automata_MOvie_posterA major new sci-fi movie, Automata, promises to not only provide a feast for the eyes (see below for a clip from the film), but an overdue opportunity to spotlight some of the ethical dilemmas arising from autonomous systems.

Hollywood has already been quick off the mark to explore issues thrown up by robotics, in movies such as Simulation and Robot & Frank. Automata, by Spanish director Gabe Ibanez, promises to provide not a little food for thought and throw a more immediate moral debate into the mix.

The film stars Antonio Banderas as an insurance agent living in the year 2044, where robots are now a common sight. To keep these metallic slaves under our control, there’s a law that expressly forbids them from modifying themselves – but nothing, it seems, can stop the rise of artificial intelligence.

The ability to self repair and optimise, it’s argued, is what distinguishes robots from mere machines as it implies some degree of consciousness.


In fact, robots with the ability to self-repair are not actually that far off and there are systems that are already able to do this – albeit in a basic form.

Bristol Robotics Laboratory researcher Alan Broun has spent the past couple of years working on artificial intelligence that will enable a robot to recognize itself, specifically to enable it to identify its own hand. He likens the process to that of a newborn baby building a mental model of itself over time and adapting that model as its body changes and its capabilities improve. It’s an area of research that has been termed “active vision.”

“It’s the view that a robot can’t be passive, it needs to interact to learn about itself and its world,” says Broun. “An adaptive system can work out its own dimensions, for example. Currently, if you change a robot’s arm, someone has to reprogram the whole system.”

Giving a robot the ability to learn about itself is, Broun believes, the first step towards being able to self repair.

“The foundations for it are there,” he says. “As a system becomes more capable, we’ll see the technology integrated, and it will be able to operate for longer without human interference.”

Broun believes that it’s only the commercial value that’s presently holding this in check, but research is moving fast.

If this is true, and self repairing robots are literally around the corner, debate is needed – and now – about the values, status and allowances we should accord these new systems.

Addressing preconceptions

The general public’s ideas about robots and their capabilities also need to be urgently addressed. A number of major studies have recently found that despite optimism about the technology’s potential, public perceptions of robots are often influenced by misconceptions and fears. In order to improve the image of robots and to increase public acceptance, we need to better understand public opinion and even take robots out onto streets, into schools and hospitals, to show people what the technology is capable of.

The creative arena is good one within which to explore the ethical challenges robotics will throw up. A Hollywood movie, such as Automata, has the potential to reach millions and provoke much needed debate. It may provide a springboard – the first step towards developing a regulatory framework, which must be in place before advanced robotic technologies can really take off.

The Japanese have for a while been way ahead of the rest of the world in their interest and acceptance of the issues robotics raises. Much of this has been due to the all pervading nature of the technology in Japan. Automation is de rigueur and the issues it raises have long been of interest to artists in the form of anime and other popular art forms.

In the rest of the world, grass roots awareness of the massive changes that robotics will throw up is evolving slowly, but workshops and seminars are introducing robots to a public that may have, until recently, given them a purely fictional status.

At Brighton’s Digital Festival, taking place throughout this month, artists Lorenza Ippolito, Anna Dumitriu and Alex May are investigating the philosophical and practical questions behind robotics.

Their event, My Robot Companion, is aimed at older audiences wanting to look at the technology and consider what the future might hold for us.

By introducing their audience to HARR1 (Humanoid Art Research Robot 1, made in collaboration with the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group), the artists aim was to stimulate questions about the uses and functions of robots, and to explore the ethical implications of how they could be used in the future in a range of social settings.

Prone to malfunction

Such social robots hold a great deal of promise for society, but it’s also crucial to manage public expectations. The first systems are likely to be basic and could be prone to malfunction. But it’s what are perceived as failed interactions that can actually provide valuable data for the designers of future systems.

These themes are explored in a workshop that is part of next month’s International Conference on Social Robotics (in Sydney, Australia). Misbehaving Machines hopes to promote interaction and allow confrontation in robotics but, just as importantly, it seeks to bring engineers and scientists together with artists to look at how unexpected behaviour impacts on user perceptions and how this can be explored in the medium of art.

As is becoming clear, this is a field ripe with opportunity, not just for engineers and computer scientists, but also creatives – whether they work in the movie industry, the media or design. Robotics has got to be the most multidisciplinary technology known to man. Previously, largely the domain of engineers and computer scientists, now it’s pulling in psychologists to draw up the interaction boundaries that humans and robots must traverse, legislators and the creative industry – as a whole – to alert the public to the fact that major change is most definitely afoot. And that the sooner we make way for it and equip ourselves to face the physical and emotional obstacles robotics will throw up, the more successful that transition will be.

Automata is premieres in the US on 23 September 2014 and is released ion 10 October. There is no UK release date yet.

The Brighton Digital Festival runs to 28 September 2014:

The Misbehaving Machines workshop takes place on 27 October 2014 in Sydney Australia, part of the International Conference on Social Robotics.

This article was originally published on RAS SIG – the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group – part of Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network.

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Adriana Hamacher Associate Editor at Robohub and the UK's Knowledge Transfer Network and a contributor to Economist Insights
Adriana Hamacher Associate Editor at Robohub and the UK's Knowledge Transfer Network and a contributor to Economist Insights

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