We (meaning my research group) have recently become interested in "ethical autonomy". From our point-of-view our interest is quite prescribed. Having formalised the "rules of the air" and created autonomous programs that can be shown to obey them we then got faced with the issue of when you want a pilot to deliberately break the rules of the air because there is some compelling ethical reason to do so (one of the examples we look at is when another aircraft is failing to obey the rules of the air, potentially maliciously, by moving left to avoid a collision instead of moving right. If the autonomous pilot continues to move right then eventually the two planes will collide where a human pilot would have deduced the other aircraft was breaking the rules and eventually would have moved left instead, thus breaking the rules of the air but nevertheless taking the ethical course of action).
Since ethical autonomy is obviously part of a much wider set of concerns my boss got involved in organising a seminar on Legal, Ethical, and Social Autonomous Systems as part of a cross-disciplinary venture with the departments of Law, Psychology and Philosophy.
It was an interesting day. From my point of view the most useful part was meeting Kirsten Eder
from Bristol. I knew quite a bit about her but we'd not met before. She's primarily a verification person and her talk looked at the potential certification processes for autonomous systems and pointed me in the direction of Runtime Verification
which I suspect I shall have to tangle with at some point in the next few years.
There was a moment when one of the philosophers asserted that sex-bots were obviously unethical and I had to bite my tongue. I took the spur of the moment decision that arguing about the ethics of what would, presumably, be glorified vibrators with a philosopher while my boss was in the room was possibly not something I wanted to get involved in.
The most interesting ethical problem raised was that of anthropomorphic or otherwise lifelike robots. EPSRC have, it transpires, a set of roboticist principles
which include the principle: "Robots are manufactured artefacts: the illusion of emotions and intent should not be used to exploit vulnerable users." The problem here is that there is genuine therapeutic interest in the use of robots that mimic pets to act as companions for the elderly, especially those with Alzheimers. While this is partially to compensate for the lack of money/people to provide genuine companionship, it's not at all clear-cut that the alternative should be rejected out of hand. Alan Winfield
, who raised the issue and helped write EPSRC's set of principles, confessed that he was genuinely conflicted about the ethics here . In the later discussion we also strayed into whether the language of beliefs, desires and intentions used to describe cognitive agent programs, also carried with it the risk that people would over-anthropomorphise the program.