The rapid movement of robots “out of factories to automate all aspects of our lives” has prompted an international group of scientists, engineers and ethicists to set up a body to examine their impact.
The Foundation for Responsible Robotics, launched in London, will encourage governments and industry to consider the impact of the technology on society, ranging from the potential for mass unemployment to human rights violations. Researchers and policymakers have so far ignored the field, say the founders.
“We are rushing headlong into the robotics revolution without consideration for the many unforeseen problems lying around the corner,” said Noel Sharkey, robotics professor at Sheffield University and chairman of the foundation. “It is time now to step back and think hard about the future of the technology before it sneaks up and bites us.”
Although industrial robots working in factories have historically dominated robotics, the balance is changing fast as service sectors automate. The world already has 12m service robots, compared with 1.5m industrial robots, Prof Sharkey said. The International Federation for Robotics predicts that the number of service robots will rise to 31m by 2018.
Robots are beginning to entertain and care for children and old people, they are preparing food and cooking in restaurants, cleaning homes, milking cows and killing in armed conflict — defence is the biggest non-industrial user of robots.
The nature of the human brain means that we cannot help treating robots as other people — or at least as living animals — to which we quickly grow attached, said Prof Seibt. That “anthropomorphism” makes people protect their favourite robots if they are threatened, even at the expense of other human beings. “Soldiers are prepared to risk their lives to protect a robot,” she said.
There are similar concerns are the impact of robotic companions at the other end of life — how will they affect the ability of young children to interact and make friends with real people?