Saturday, September 9, 2017

What is 'responsible robotics'?

The website of the Foundation of Responsible Robotics has a variety of material that is useful for lessons - and not only for robotics engineering students. The FRR's focus is on robotics, but their philosophy and mission are relevant for other areas of technology and engineering as well.

From the What We Do section:

"Mission: To promote the responsible design, development, implementation, and policy of robots embedded in our society. Our goal is to influence the future development and application of robotics such that it embeds the standards, methods, principles, capabilities, and policy points, as they relate to the responsible design and deployment of robotic systems.

We see both the definition of responsible robotics and the means for achieving it as on-going tasks that will evolve alongside the technology of robotics. Of great significance is that the FRR aims to be proactive and assistive to the robotic industry in a way that allows for the ethical, legal, and societal issues to be incorporated into design, development, and policy."

The link:

Of particular interest to me (since I am teaching a humanities subject to engineers) is the emphasis on the joint input from non-engineering fields.

From the Who We Are section (in part):

"The FRR is the only foundation dedicated to responsible robotics that relies heavily on the humanities to work together with robot designers and developers. We are a not-for-profit foundation established in Twente, the Netherlands. The FRR is comprised of ethicists, philosophers, legal scholars, roboticists, journalists, scientists, companies and others interested in investing in our goals." [my emphasis]

In the About Us section is the area "Responsible Robotics." Seven members of the FRR answer the question, "What does 'responsible robotics' mean to you?" (in a video) in less than 50 seconds each (except for one speaker who speaks for 1 minute, 28 seconds). There are a variety of accents that include American, British, Italian and German.

Before listening, students could first consider how they would answer the question. Students in engineering disciplines other than robotics could also answer the question - or adapt it to their own field (e.g., what does 'responsible information technology' mean to you?). They could then compare their answers with those given. Many of these answers could also refer to the concept of 'responsibility' in other fields of engineering.

Since it's spoken (spontaneously?), it's not always perfect - grammar, repetitions, etc. So these are good examples of 'real' speech (i.e., not from films or from professional presenters) for students' listening practice.

The following is my own transcript (after listening to the answers many times!), so if there are any errors, it's my fault. The speakers are not identified on the FRR website, but for each speaker there is a link to, and there I found each speaker's name and affiliation. The number in parentheses before each name is the length of time of the speaking.

FRR members answering the question, "What does 'responsible robotics' mean to you?"

  1. (0.28)  Mark Coeckelbergh, Professor of Philosophy of Media and Technology at the University of Vienna.  RR means to me that you don't think about the ethics of technology afterwards, when the technology is already there, but you think about it beforehand. And you make sure that the designers, engineers, scientists, that they're aware of the ethical issues at the time when they're actually developing the technology.
  2. (0:27)  Amanda Sharkey, Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor at the University of Sheffield.  Well, for me RR means looking into the benefits and the risks of robotics. So trying to anticipate what the risks might be so that we can avoid them. But also making sure that we don't miss out on the benefits.
  3. (1:28)  David Gunkel, an American academic and Presidential Teaching Professor of Communication Studies at Northern Illinois University.  So RR to me means the following: I would take the word "responsible" and sort of break it up into its two components, which is "response" and "able." So when I think of RR I think of something that is responsible in that it can have the ability to respond to us and we in turn can have the ability to respond to it. And so responsibleness is not just about being accountable for something, but it's about being able to be social and about being able to take a certain kind of stance with regards to the sociality and your involvement in the sociality. And so we're looking now at a future and even a present where our machines are becoming more and more responsive. And they are listening to us, they are taking commands from us and they are doing things that we didn't anticipate them doing in the past. So, for example, the Tay AI, which was created by Microsoft, that was a responsible robot in that it was able to respond, but it had some difficulties with the assignment of responsibility because of the sort of racist tweets that it had circulated on the internet. So there is a difference there that I think is important that you actually hear in the word "responsible" that I think we have to mobilize and begin to think about in much more creative ways and much more critical ways.
  4. (0:37)  Filippo Santoni de Sio, Assistant Professor in Ethics of Technology at TU Delft.  RR to me means robotics that keeps human values into account (sic). So traditionally robotics has been seen as a technical enterprise focusing on the efficiency and the technical quality of the artifacts. We think that robotics should promote also values like justice, responsibility, inclusion, privacy and whatnot. And this is particularly important in an age in which robotics is accelerating in a significant way.
  5. (0:40)  Wendy Ju, Executive Director at the Center for Design Research at Stanford University and Assistant Professor of Information Science at Cornell Tech.  For me RR is really about thinking about all the different aspects of human culture and human life and taking that into account when we're designing a robot. So that the robot ... we're not constantly accommodating the technology, but technology is accommodating us and supporting us. And I think that's difficult to do because people, just are people ... you know, people are really different and we operate differently in all these different circumstances and there's all these interesting aspects of culture and behavior that need to be taken into account for (sic).
  6. (0:44)  John Sullins, Professor of Philosophy at Sonoma State University.  RR means to me the responsible design, use and deployment of robotics technologies in the various ways that they're going to be entering into society in the next generation, as things are going to really be changing and we need to really think through exactly how we're going to utilize these technologies and deploy these technologies and have them disrupt the things we want disrupted and keep safe the things that we want to preserve about our society.
  7. (0:44)  Shannon Vallor, Professor of Philosophy of Technology at Santa Clara University, as well as president of the Society for Philosophy of Technology.  RR means to me a certain kind of practice, a way of thinking about robotics in which it's not about so much what we build, but what we're doing when we build robots, when we design them, when we think about who we're designing them for. So I think RR is about being responsible to others, being responsible for others through the practice of robotic design and engineering that seeks to develop technologies that can actually enrich human lives. 

After listening to the speakers (and/or after reading the transcript), students could prepare a short explanation of their answer to the question - and present it impromptu to the class. This would give rise to further discussion about the different 'meanings,' including their response to each speaker's comment. What do most answers have in common? Which answer(s) are different from the others. Do the answers reflect in some way the speaker's position or place of work?

For students who will one day be engineers, it is extremely important that they develop a clear idea of what 'responsibility' means to them.

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