I Wore A Descriptive Robot Ethical Onion On My Belt

Via the fortuitously broken RSS feed of Intimate Machines, a short academic overview of Robot Ethics / RoboEthics. Intimate Machines is Glenda Shaw-Garlock’s blog, currently in hibernation, possibly thesis-related. While the overview itself is pretty smooth, the major ethical documents in this nascent field seem to be jolly tedious for a subject that lets us answer questions about the morality of electroshock robot camel jockeys.

It’s not the latest output, but the Euron Roboethic Roadmap (PDF) will serve well enough as an example. Firstly, it’s not really a roadmap, which implies some sort of high level direction: it’s more an exhaustive bullet-pointed list of every permutation in which ethics and robotics might intersect, with the more interestingly science fictional ones glossed over in order to seem serious. The project is almost entirely descriptive, and there are no ethical guidelines here of the type a researcher might use to get their project past a roboethics committee. The first proposed national prescriptive guidelines, due to come out of Korea in 2009, seem to have been abandoned with a change of government. (In the meantime, Jamais Cascio has useful early stab.)

Its not clear if this descriptive tediousness, which is hardly inherent to academic writing, is unintended or deliberate policy. Supporting the unconscious side, the prose does have some of the word-counting desperation of an engineering student essay on Othello. Contrariwise, writing is produced with an audience in mind. Rather than researchers – for whom ethical guidelines might include some sort of moral stance – the institutions of public policy seem more clearly in mind. In the case of the Euron roadmap, one’s reminded of the bureaucratic house style of the likely regulator, the EU. Perhaps robot ethics has coloured itself in grey as a kind of self-defense mechanism: robotics researchers want to show they’ve done their homework, thought long and hard about if they are doing the right thing, and are safe and somewhat dull custodians of the world’s mechanized retarded geniuses and flying killing machines. Think of it as the Abraham Simpson school of rhetoric: win by boring your opponents to death.

I don’t think that will quite be adequate.

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