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The Moral Hazards and Legal Conundrums of Our Robot-Filled Future | Science | WIRED

The Moral Hazards and Legal Conundrums of Our Robot-Filled Future | Science | WIRED.


Whether you find it exhilarating or terrifying (or both), progress in robotics and related fields like AI is raising new ethical quandaries and challenging legal codes that were created for a world in which a sharp line separates man from machine. Last week, roboticists, legal scholars, and other experts met at the University of California, Berkeley law school to talk through some of the social, moral, and legal hazards that are likely to arise as that line starts to blur.


We May Have Feelings for Robots

Darling studies the attachments people form with robots. “There’s evidence that people respond very strongly to robots that are designed to be lifelike,” she said. “We tend to project onto them and anthropomorphize them.”

Most of the evidence for this so far is anecdotal. Darling’s ex-boyfriend, for example, named his Roomba and would feel bad for it when it got stuck under the couch. She’s trying to study human empathy for robots in a more systematic way. In one ongoing study she’s investigating how people react when they’re asked to “hurt” or “kill” a robot by hitting it with various objects. Preliminary evidence suggests they don’t like it one bit.

Another study by Julie Carpenter, a University of Washington graduate student, found that soldiers develop attachments to the robots they use to detect and defuse roadside bombs and other weapons. In interviews with service members, Carpenter found that in some cases they named their robots, ascribed personality traits to them, and felt angry or even sad when their robot got blown up in the line of duty.

This emerging field of research has implications for robot design, Darling says. If you’re building a robot to help take care of elderly people, for example, you might want to foster a deep sense of engagement. But if you’re building a robot for military use, you wouldn’t want the humans to get so attached that they risk their own lives.

There might also be more profound implications. In a 2012 paper, Darling considers the possibility of robot rights. She admits it’s a provocative proposition, but notes that some arguments for animal rights focus not on the animals’ ability to experience pain and anguish but on the effect that cruelty to animals has on humans. If research supports the idea that abusing robots makes people more abusive towards people, it might be a good idea to have legal protections for social robots, Darling says.

Robots Will Have Sex With Us

Robotics is taking sex toys to a new level, and that raises some interesting issues, ranging from the appropriateness of human-robot marriages to using robots to replace prostitutes or spice up the sex lives of the elderly. Some of the most provocative questions involve child-like sex robots. Arkin, the Georgia Tech roboticist, thinks it’s worth investigating whether they could be used to rehabilitate sex offenders.

“We have a problem with pedophilia in society,” Arkin said. “What do we do with these people after they get out of prison? There are very high recidivism rates.” If convicted sex offenders were “prescribed” a child-like sex robot, much like heroin addicts are prescribed methadone as part of a program to kick the habit, it might be possible to reduce recidivism, Arkin suggests. A government agency would probably never fund such a project, Arkin says, and he doesn’t know of anyone else who would either. “But nonetheless I do believe there is a possibility that we may be able to better protect society through this kind of research, rather than having the sex robot cottage industry develop in seedy back rooms, which indeed it is already,” he said.

Even if—and it’s a big if—such a project could win funding and ethical approval, it would be difficult to carry out, Sharkey cautions. “How do you actually do the research until these things are out there in the wild and used for a while? How do you know you’re not creating pedophiles?” he said.

How the legal system would deal with child-like sex robots isn’t entirely clear, according to Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that simulated child pornography (in which young adults or computer generated characters play the parts of children) is protected by the First Amendment and can’t be criminalized. “I could see that extending to embodied [robotic] children, but I can also see courts and regulators getting really upset about that,” Calo said.

Our Laws Aren’t Made for Robots

Child-like sex robots are just one of the many ways in which robots are likely to challenge the legal system in the future, Calo said. “The law assumes, by and large, a dichotomy between a person and a thing. Yet robotics is a place where that gets conflated,” he said.

For example, the concept of mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) is central to criminal law: For an act to be considered a crime, there has to be intent. Artificial intelligence could throw a wrench into that thinking, Calo said. “The prospect of robotics behaving in the wild, displaying emergent or learned behavior creates the possibility there will be crimes that no one really intended.”

To illustrate the point, Calo used the example of Darius Kazemi, a programmer who created a bot that buys random stuff for him on Amazon. “He comes home and he’s delighted to find some box that his bot purchased,” Calo said. But what if Kazemi’s bot bought some alcoholic candy, which is illegal in his home state of Massachusetts? Could he be held accountable? So far the bot hasn’t stumbled on Amazon’s chocolate liqueur candy offerings—it’s just hypothetical. But Calo thinks we’ll soon start seeing cases that raise these kinds of questions.

And it won’t stop there. The apparently imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles will raise new questions in liability law. Social robots inside the home will raise 4th Amendment issues. “Could the FBI get a warrant to plant a question in a robot you talk to, ‘So, where’d you go this weekend?’” Calo asked. Then there are issues of how to establish the limits that society deems appropriate. Should robots or the roboticists who make them be the target of our laws and regulations?