Call for debate on robot ethics

Technology experts have warned that mankind should think before rushing into a world of autonomous robots as their development outpaces the ethical and legal issues surrounding their use.

Robotic systems are increasingly being used in hospitals, for transport and as drone weapons systems on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Britain's Royal Academy of Engineering says that automated freight transport could be on the roads in as little as 10 years, and the prospect of fully autonomous robot surgeons is becoming a reality.

However, the academy suggests that much debate is needed to address the effect of putting responsibility solely in the hands of machines.

The issue was highlighted last month when an American company, Cyclone Power Technologies, announced a battlefield robot named EATR, which would power itself by scavenging organic material.

The company was forced to issue a statement denying that the machine would turn to eating human flesh - arguably the most common biological material on a battlefield - to power itself.

Harry Schoell, the chief executive of Cyclone, said: "We completely understand the public's concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission," adding that EATR was vegetarian.

Lambert Dopping-Heppenstal, of the engineering academy's ethics working group, said that while we have lived for many years with semi-autonomous machines, such as washing machines and lifts, the future would herald more sophisticated systems working with "some level of self-determination".

Professor Will Stewart, a fellow of the engineering academy and co-author of a report on autonomous machines, said that automated trucks were within 10 years of being on the roads and surgeons were not far beyond.

"Autonomous vehicles will be safer. One of the compelling arguments for them is that the machine cannot have an argument with its wife; it can run 24 hours a day without getting tired. But it is making decisions on its own," he told the BBC.

He said that autonomous systems would prove, on average, to be better surgeons and better lorry drivers than humans.

But malfunctions could spell disaster.

"If a robot surgeon is actually better than a human one, most times you're going to be better off with a robot surgeon," said report co-author, Dr Chris Elliott. "But occasionally it might do something that a human being would never be so stupid as to do."

Professor Stewart concluded: "It is fundamentally a big issue that we think the public ought to think through before we start trying to imprison a truck."

Source: The New Zealand Herald