South Korea is drafting an ethical charter to govern how robots will function alongside humans, officials said Wednesday.

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A robot wearing an apron pours a bottle of tea into a cup during a demonstration at the University of Tokyo in February. Advancements like this are spurring South Korean officials to develop a code of ethics for robots. ((AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara))

The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said the government plans to issue a "Robot Ethics Charter" for manufacturers and users to cover the ethical standards that must be programmed into the machines.

"The government plans to set ethical guidelines concerning the roles and functions of robots as robots are expected to develop strong intelligence in the near future," the ministry said in a statement.

Low birth rates and an aging population have made the adoption of robots in "service" roles an important part of the government's future-planning. Last year the Ministry of Information and Communication said it hoped to have a robot in every South Korean household between 2015 and 2020.

'Imagine if some people treat androids as if the machines were their wives.'—Park Hye-Young, South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication

Park Hye-Young of the ministry's robot team told Agence France-Presse the future use of robots as key companions to human beings brings up a host of concerns which must be addressed.

"Imagine if some people treat androids as if the machines were their wives. Others may get addicted to interacting with them just as many internet users get hooked to the cyberworld," she said.

Inspiration from Asimov's laws

In a revelation that should please science fiction fans, Park said the guidelines are expected to reflect the three laws first proposed by Isaac Asimov in the 1942 short story Runaround.

Asimov's laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law;
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

The charter will also draw from an ethical "roadmap" that the European Robotics Research Network is expected to issue in Rome next month.

Asimov's first law would seem to be at odds with a gun-carrying sentry robot unveiled by the South Korean government in September of last year.

Similarly, robot obstacle courses planned in both the United States and Singapore later this year designed to mirror "urban warfare" conditions have raised ethical questions about their use in military operations.

The issue of robot rights was addressed in December last year after a speculative paper commissioned by the British government suggested robots might one day be smart enough to demand emancipation from human owners and raised the possibility that they might have to be treated as citizens.