New Brunswick

Ethics must be priority when dealing with robots, says researcher

A growing robotics industry has given rise to ethical discussions about humans relationships with the machines.

Growing use of robots means human relationships with them must be evaluated

“I’m concerned that once companies understand how persuasive and engaging this technology, I wonder whether they might use to it to sell people things, or serve an interest other than their own," said Kate Darling a robotics researcher at MIT. (Flavia Schaub/

In the past the idea of robots and autonomous machines doing work and even caring for humans seemed like a science fiction pipe dream. But what was once considered science fiction is set to be a reality in a few decades and that has one scientist concerned.

Kate Darling, a robotics researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke at the Big Data Congress in Saint John last week. She said even the relatively minor intrusion of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) into people's lives has given her reason to pause.

"We have robots coming into areas like elder care, or children's toys. It seems that the way people treat them like a living thing might raise some concerns about the emotional manipulation of people, of human dignity, and around empathy and violent behavior," said Darling.

Darling was drawn into the world of robotics because of the possible ethical implications the increase in AI brings. While she is focused mainly on humans social interactions with robots, there are many other ethical implications.

"There are a few different ethical questions, like as robots more from being behind the scenes into all these new areas of our lives, some people are interested in the ethics of autonomous weapons systems, or the ethics of autonomous vehicles making certain decisions, the whole privacy/data security issue is a huge one," said Darling.

Ethics surrounding autonomous vehicles have already become pressing issues in the car manufacturing world. Tesla has already implemented a basic type of autopilot, which can control certain aspects of the car's course and Google has already experimented with fully self-driving cars.

Robotics in health care

It's not just the automotive industry that's been experimenting with robots, the health care industry has too, specifically elder care.

"In many countries there are now therapeutic robots that are meant to replace animal therapy with the elderly, like this robot seal Paro, is a licensed medical device in a lot of Western Countries. It's used with dementia patients. It's like a baby seal, it makes sounds and movements and gives people the sense of nurturing something," said Darling.

While a cute robotic seal may appear harmless, Darling said ethical concerns are still present.

"I'm concerned that once companies understand how persuasive and engaging this technology, I wonder whether they might use to it to sell people things, or serve and interest other than their own. Then there's the question of violence and empathy: when robots can really mimic a living thing, and when you strike the robot it reacts as though it's in pain, does that desensitize you to striking a real living thing," said Darling.

While interaction between humans and robots has increased, it will be a while before it is everywhere.

"Right now, the technology isn't good enough to really seep into people's homes. But certainly within the next few decades," said Darling.

With files from Information Morning Saint John.