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Robotics needs to get political

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27 January 2015



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business_people_voice_politics_crowdA couple of weeks ago I was a panelist on a public debate at the 2014 Battle of Ideas. The title of the debate was The robots are coming: friends or foes? with a focus not on the technology but the social and economic implications of robotics. One of the questions my brilliant fellow panelists and I were asked to consider was: Will the ‘second machine age’ bring forth a new era of potential liberation from menial toil or will the short-term costs for low-paid workers outstrip the benefits?

Each panelist made an opening statement. Here is mine:

Most roboticists are driven by high ideals.

They – we – are motivated by a firm belief that our robots will benefit society. Working on surgical robots, search and rescue robots, robots for assisted living or robots that can generate electricity from waste, my colleagues in the Bristol Robotics Lab want to change the world for the better. The lab’s start up companies are equally altruistic: one is developing low cost robotic prosthetic hands for amputees, three others are developing materials, including low cost robots, for education.

Whatever their politics, these good men and women would I suspect be horrified by the idea that their robots might, in the end, serve to further enrich the 0.1%, rather than extend the reach of robotics to the neediest in society.

I was once an idealist – convinced that brilliant inventions would change society for the better just by virtue of being brilliant.

I’m older now. 

For the last 5 years or so I have become an advocate for robot ethics. 

But in the real world, ethics need teeth. In other words we need to move from ethical principles, to standards, to legislation.

So I’m very pleased to tell you that in the last few days the British Standards Institute working group on robot ethics has published – for comments – a proposed new “Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems“.

In the draft Guide we have identified ethical hazards associated with the use of robots, and suggest guidance to either eliminate or mitigate the risks associated with these ethical hazards. We outline 15 high level ethical hazards under four headings: societal, use, legal/financial and environmental.

Like any transformative technology robotics holds both promise and peril. As a society we need to understand, debate, and reach an informed consensus about what robots should do for us, and even more importantly, should not do. 

Ladies and Gentlemen: Robotics, I believe, needs to get political.

The debate was recorded and is on soundcloud here:

It was a terrific debate. We had a very engaged audience with hugely interesting – and some very challenging – questions. For me it was an opportunity to express and discuss some worries I’ve had for awhile about who will ultimately benefit from robotics. In summing up toward the end I said this:

Robotics has the potential to be hugely beneficial to society, but is too important to leave to free-market capitalism.

Something I believe very strongly.



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Alan Winfield is Professor in robotics at UWE Bristol. He communicates about science on his personal blog.
Alan Winfield is Professor in robotics at UWE Bristol. He communicates about science on his personal blog.





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