Robots can be a force for good, says robo-ethicist

Thinking critically — especially at the design stages — can help us build robots to make life better.

But there are several ethical considerations designers must take into account

Robo-ethicist AJung Moon poses with Jibo the social robot. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Little Jibo — one of the world's first widely available social robots — isn't much bigger than your typical smartphone, but unlike a phone, he can dance.

That ability to move and manipulate the immediate environment around them is what distinguishes robots from other computing technologies, says Jibo's companion, AJung Moon, a scientist presenting at this week's B.C. Tech Summit who.specializes in the ethics of robots.

Different robots have different functionalities. A social robot like Jibo is meant to interact with the world, but Moon says interacting with our world creates some ethical dilemmas.

Watch Jibo dance:

Take for example the fact Jibo's designers have gendered him as male.

Moon says gender is one of the design decisions designers have to make when they are creating artificial intelligence that can unfairly exacerbate societal biases.

In one study, she said, a male robot teaching math was better received than a female robot teaching math.

"[The dilemma is] do we want to create a robot people like and people think is more effective or do we want to go in a different direction and say actually, we have to have robotic teachers who teach math who are configured as a female robot?" Moon said.

If we don't take these sorts of societal questions into account, they can have very broad impacts.

"Not only do our decisions today influence our futures, the way we design robots that influence our future decisions will further influence our decisions in the future. It's a cyclical way," Moon said.

Listen to AJung Moon's interview on CBC's The Early Edition:

Moon presented a session at the B.C. Tech Summit this week. 5:59

So are robots something we should fear?

In some ways, Moon says, the future is already here. We have already entrusted programers and technologists to make decisions for us in terms of privacy and dignity in the ways we use technology every day.

"You can absolutely imagine a dystopian future with a lot of these robots if we're not really careful about those decisions," she said.

If we can be thoughtful and deliberate in our design, Moon says, robots can be a force for good.

"Imagine having a robot that is able to support that particular industry so that the dangerous part of that job is taken care of?" she said.

"We would be able to make a better use of what robots are capable of which is taking care of dangerous, dirty and dull kinds of jobs that may be unsuited for humans in the future."

The bottom line, Moon says, is to think critically about new technology.

"If we are able to design them right, there are so many different things we can do better."

With files from Margaret Gallagher