Definition and history

The rapid advancement of robotics has led to a change in research. Robots have the ability to perform a complex series of actions automatically. There are three new areas of application. This document aims to inform the reader about robotics, paying close attention to the definition of robotics; examples and applications of robots in everyday life; criticisms and ethical issues.

Defining Features

It is believed that robots will develop quite fast in the following sectors: military, households and healthcare. Robots are machines with motor function that are able to perceive their environment and operate autonomously so that they can replace human effort. Below, some defining features of robots in military, households and healthcare will be described.

Motor function: Robots that have motor functions have limbs which allow three or more axes. Such robots have motor skills and can serve the same purpose of hands which allows them to be capable of completing the same tasks as humans. To give a visual image, these include mobile robots where some have wheels and humanoid robots that have legs and arms.

Mobile energy system: It is necessary formobilerobots to have a highly mobile and miniaturized energy system to work.

Sensory perception: In order to complete the tasks that the robot has been programmed to do they must obtain information on their environment. Theses robots are usually designed with visual perception abilities (cameras equipped with pattern recognition software) or some have tactile-feedback by other sensors. These senses enable robots to have real time information on the environment they are working in.

Autonomy/agency: Robots have the ability to make decisions on their own (based on their perceptions) without the influence of humans.

Timeline: According to a particular source robots will be released in to society by 2015. These robots include the ‘next generation robot-controlled system which is largely based on artificial intelligence, sensors and tele-control types of technologies, mutual sensing technology between human beings and robots’ (Korean Government, 2000). However, the estimate release date 2015 could be seen as outdated as it would be unrealistic to suggest that robots will be incorporated in to society by next year.  Although the description of the new soon to be introduced technologies is not exactly clear it suggests that that rapid advancement is anticipated in the military, households and healthcare fields.

Relation to other Technologies: The construction of robots needs electronical engineers, mechanical engineers and Artificial Intelligence. Huw Arnall (2003) suggested that robotics stems from Artificial Intelligence as it is dependent on the research carried out in Artificial Intelligence. Robots are designed in a way that requires research on human-robot interactions and research in this area include cognitive psychology and philosophical principles and theories.As well as this robotics is also linked to ubiquitous computing; the internet of things and ambient intelligence. Ubiquitous computing means that computing devices are everywhere; the internet of things is a concept that describes how computing devices are becoming more wireless and form intelligent networks. Ambient intelligence is the idea that electronic devices in our homes, offices, hospitals, cars and public spaces are interconnected, adaptive, personalized, anticipatory and context-aware.


· There are a variety of robots that come in different shapes and sizes. Industrial robots are often programmed to complete a single task for example welding or spraying automobiles.

· Softbots, also known as virtual robots are the results of recent advancements in technology. These types of robots are specifically programmed to carry out tasks on the internet and virtual environments.

· Robots can more or less be used for anything and anywhere depending on its programming nature. The military have taken a keen interest in robots especially in regards to the production of robots that are able to substitute human soldiers and are in fact possibly better than humans in physical and psychological respects.

· There has been a recent shift in the application of robotics from industrial robots to healthcare, household and the military (European Technology Assessment Group, 2006). Japan is strongly considering replacing human labour with robots as they have an ageing population.

· There are many examples of robots in the healthcare setting. Robots are used to carry the patients that have trouble moving in and out of their bed. Furthermore in some cases the elderly use robots, both human- like and animal- like robots, as pets and this is because they often feel lonely and need companionship. These types of robots are very useful as they have a therapeutic nature one that lowers stress levels and the feeling of loneliness in the elderly and infirm (Harper, 2008).

·    Examples of household robots include automatic hoovers, lawn mowers and floor cleaners.

·  The European Robot network (EURON, a partnership of 22 European countries) also have big aspirations for household robots.

– There are more complex type of robots and they are able to feel affection and to communicate. Japan are putting in massive amounts of money towards the Humanoid and Human Friendly Robotics Systems. A humanoid robot that is 160 cm tall, weighs 90 kg and has a speed of two kilometers per hour is the outcome thus far of current research efforts.

· Robots can be applied to multiple fields in society. Contemporary robots are used in manufacturing, transport, earth and space exploration, surgery, weaponry, laboratory research and many more. It has been speculated that in the near future robots will appear in the military, household and healthcare. Here are some examples:

–    Service robots in households: Harper (2008)suggests that robots could aid the elderly and disabled with their daily activities such aspicking up objects and cooking meals.

–      Robots as companions: ‘Robots could provide a companion to talk to or cuddle, as if they were pets or dolls. The appeal of these kinds of robots is thought to be partially due to their therapeutic qualities, being able to reduce stress and loneliness among the elderly and infirm’ (Harper, 2008, p. 20).

–    Robots as soldiers: ‘The Gladiator Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle program will support Marine Corps conduct of Ship to Objective Maneuver (STOM) through the use of a small-medium sized mobile robotic system to minimize risk and neutralize threats to Marines across the spectrum of conflict. Gladiator will perform scout/surveillance, NBC reconnaissance, direct fire, and personnel obstacle breaching missions in its basic configuration’ (GlobalSecurity, 2010). Military robots are not limited to being used as weapons they can also be used in other ways on the battlefield.

–    Robots for therapeutic purposes: ‘Social interaction of people with mental, cognitive and social handicaps (e.g., autistic children or elderly people with dementia) is essential to their social participation but proves to be a major challenge for healthcare. Robotized systems can support human care and offer unprecedented therapeutic functionality that will develop or maintain social skills which would not be available without these systems or would vanish. Results can be expected in terms of developing basic social skills through play or maintaining skills to deal with everyday life. These robotic systems can be programmed to generate all kinds of communicative reactions (e.g. sounds and colors), invite to move or play games, stimulate friendly face expressions and can also learn to adapt to the individual person’ (TNO – Quality of Life, 2008).

–     Robot swarms: ‘Autonomous miniature robots, the size of a few millimeters, behaving as ecological systems such as a swarm of bees or ants, are seen to have significant commercial and military applications for surveillance, microassembly, biological, medical, or any tasks where a collective action can provide a greater benefit than a single unit or small groups of robots. Although the technological challenges are similar to traditional wireless sensor networks, swarm robots are an order of magnitude smaller and consequently will challenge the technologists even further. One critical aspect is the short range (centimeter) communication link required between the robots to enable them to perform their actions collectively’ (Ofcom, 2008, p 61).

Controversies / criticism

‘The knowledge-processing aspects of robots are, however, still limited: in particular the higher cognitive processes such as perception, decision taking, learning and action still pose major challenges. Despite progress in some areas within cognitive systems and models, the provisional conclusion is that many hurdles still have to be overcome before an artificial system will be created which approaches the cognitive capacities of humans’ (European Technology Assessment Group, 2006, p. 36).

‘Associated with this reality check is the recognition that classical attempts at modeling AI, based upon the capabilities of digital computers to manipulate symbols, are probably not sufficient to achieve anything resembling true intelligence. This is because symbolic AI systems, as they are known, are designed and programmed rather than trained or evolved. As a consequence, they function under rules and, as such, tend to be very fragile, rarely proving effective outside of their assigned domain. In other words, symbolic AI is proving to be only as smart as the programmer who has written the programmes in the first place’ (Huw A rnall, 2003, p. 43).

Specific ethical issues raised by the technology

Ethics that are related to robotics are known as roboethics. Roboethics reflect on ethical issues that are related to present and prospective uses of robots (Tamburrini, 2009).

Below are a number of ethical issues that could be considered when discussing robotics.

Robot and robots rights

‘Many of the major ethical issues surrounding AI – related development hinge upon the potential for software and robot autonomy. In the short term, some commentators question whether people will really want to cede control over our affairs to an artificial intelligent piece of software, which might even have its own legal rights. While some autonomy is beneficial, absolute autonomy is frightening. For one thing, it is clear that legal systems are not yet prepared for high autonomy systems, even in scenarios that are relatively simple to envisage, such as the possession of personal information. In the longer-term, however, in which it is possible to envisage extremely advanced applications of hard AI, serious questions arise concerning military conflict, and robot take-over and machine rights’ (Huw Arnall, 2003, p. 57).  The discussion of robots autonomy and rights is one that has been going on for a prolonged period of time.  Many believe that as robots become autonomous they should have rights, eventually robots will be fully integrated in society and our perceptions, attitudes and behaviour towards robots should change. Nagenborg (2008) suggested a new area of law should be introduced called “robotic law”.  However this matter has been heavily debated upon especially in regards to robots as moral agents and holding fundmental rights (Tamburrini, 2009)

Robots overtaking human kind

There is fear that robots may take over human kind at some point as some researchers desire to construct an artificial intelligence that surpasses all humans (Joy, 2000). Joy (2000) further mentions that robots will become too complex for humans to design in the future and that robots will be manufactured by autonomous robots. He strongly believes that robotics pose a threat to humanity especially as there is a possibility that they can self replicate. On the other hand McCauley (2007) disagrees with Joy (2000) and suggests that there is a low likelihood of robots overtaking humankind. Although McCauley (2007) disagrees with this the fear has manifestised in society and has been popularised in the media in movies such as Terminator, Artificial Intelligence, A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and many more. These movies display a fear of robots overtaking humans or humankind. Hans Moravec wrote a book on this issue named “Mind children”in 1998. Some researchers for example, Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, UK. are also trying to advance human beings with the help of research in Artificial intelligence and robotics.

Isaac Asimov, an science fiction author has attempted to reverse this fear by creating three laws of robotics: A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm;A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law; A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law. Such laws have been created in order to guarantee that humans are safe. McCauley (2007) investigated whether robotic researchers were aware of ethical issues of robotics and the three laws of Asimov and found that they were familiar with the laws and ethics.

Sensory Perception, privacy & surveillance

The ethical issues surrounding motor function and mobile energy system are not so obvious however, the defining features, sensory perception and autonomy do have ethical issues.

Robots obtain visual information using video cameras and this recording is stored and recovered. For example household robots take in information about human behaviour in the house, the house is a personal environment  and personal information can be gathered and stored. This can be considered as an ethical issue as an individual’s privacy is at risk (Van den Hoven, 2008). Maintaning ones privacy is very important. Privacy aims to restrain access to personal data and to stop others from obtaing and using that information. Specialised robots are important to surveillance infrstructure and there is a greater opportunity to monitor people (Nagenborg, 2007) hence surveillance is a breech of ones privacy. Such surveillance robots are in control (Nagenborg, 2008), even before robots become concious they can control humans (Veruggio, 2006 b). In addition to this robots designed for the military are suitable for fulling this purpose (Lin, 2008).

Sociological implications

Robots can communicate and interact with humans and by doing this they are involved in the social life of humans and can change “the condition as well as the dynamics of human interaction” (Zhao, 2006). Perhaps humans and robots can exist side by side?

Interaction with robots especially those that are human like can affect the self perception of humans and can also influence how they relate to others (Zhao, 2006). This human robot interaction can also re conceptualise the term social as it is no longer confined to inter-human but between human and humanoid (Zhao, 2006). It has been believed that psychological problems could arise from changes like “deviations in human emotions, problems of attachment, disorganization in children, fears, panic, confusion between real and artificial, feeling of subordination towards robots” (Veruggio, 2006 b). Negative influences of robots on humans should also be considered. Robots are designed with basic linguistic abilities and human-robot interaction may reduce human linguistic ability (Tamburrini, 2009). Communication between humans and machines can also be used effectively when robots interact with inferior users that are technologically incompetent

Overall Robots are becoming an essential part of the human condition, new social and psychological problems arise (Zhao, 2006).  Societies view of  robot- human interaction therefore needs to be revised.

Social consequence of robotics

Robots will raise a number of issues in society. An example of an issue is widening the digital divide, as not all social classes, age-groups and countries will have equal access to or the ability to make use of robots. In other words robotics encourages the increase the socio-technological gap rather than reduce the gap which is the aim of the current goal (Tamburrini, 2009; Veruggio, 2006a ).A major source of social consequences is the replacement of humans by robots. These issues are addressed below.

Replacing humans

Robots are becoming very advanced and are capable of completing a variety of tasks now that they can take over the tasks from humans. Using robots for such tasks are economically beneficial and increase productivity however this could leads to social problems. The use of robotics in the work place and taking over human tasks could lead to a rise in unemployment (Rosenberg, 2008, Veruggio, 2006b) and in some cases unemployment could be at a large scale as employers could remove their labour costs (Arkin, 2007).  Unemployment has many negative impacts and could cause division in society and gross inequities (Rosenberg, 2008) and could also negatively affect ones self-esteem and self worth (Rosenberg, 2008; Arkin, 2007; Veruggio, 2006b). Some may say that robots taking over is a good thing as they are free from carrying out boring and repetitive tasks and tasks that could potentially be dangerous and have more time to think about their potential. However most people will not see it like this. Work is very important to an individuals’ self- worth (Rosenberg, 2008; Arkin, 2007) and the reduced number of tasks will amount to idleness.

The mass use of robots in one country can also affect other countries (Nagenborg, 2008).  Robots can be used to produce products in house rather than producing such goods in a foreign country. In situations like this the foreign country looses out on the chance to raise their employment levels to aid the production of goods. If the production stays local that will be better in terms of a boost in employment. In addition to the increase use of robotics could lead to an even bigger robotic divide between more economically developed countries and less economically developed countries (Nagenborg, 2008). In the more economically developed countries robots complete the tasks that are classed as inhumane where as in the less economically developed countries the workers are required to complete inhumane tasks (Nagengorg, 2008).

Attribution- This document was created by Jade Ijeh on the basis of research undertaken in the Ethical Project


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