Robot Punches Humans for Roboethics Sake

The New ScientistThe Daily Maverick (South Africa) and other media covered a roboethics related story this Friday by introducing Borut Povše and colleagues’ recent work presented at the IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics. The conference was held last week (October 10-13th, 2010) in Istanbul, Turkey and was a venue where over 900 papers on the topic were presented.

Borut Povše and colleagues’ work are getting a lot of attention because of the nature of the experiment they conducted. What did they do? They did a study where

“a powerful robot has been punching a group of volunteers in the arm over and over again to test tolerance to pain. Each member of the group was hit 18 times at a variety of impact energies and asked to rank how much each strike hurt on a scale from “painless” to “unbearable.”” (The Atlantic reports)

The Daily Maverick reports that this work seem controversial – they intentionally incurred pain onto the human subjects who participated in this study. But I am actually in support of this study, not as it pertains to the pain-causing nature of human subject study conducted, but as it was directed to practical and current state-of-the-art side of roboethics.

People in roboethics often talk about futuristic scenarios involving robots that may never come to exist due to the limitations of current, and perhaps, future technologies. But I would like to argue that roboethics has to do with problems that are much more real, and near-future problem (within the next decade) than the imaginative scenarios.

I am in full support of addressing foreseeable problems by grounding today’s engineering decisions in human ethics, and learning about what ethically sound design decisions of roboticists might be.

Of course, we need to imagine futuristic scenarios and look back into the past works of the great thinkers in order to understand relevant ethics in general, and to achieve manufacturing of real-life ethics based robots. I think more people in technical field should be involved in such research, and see it as a very positive trend.

For those of you who are interested in finding out more about Borut Povše’s work presented at last week’s conference, the paper is entitled “Industrial Robot and Human Operator Collision” (authors: Borut Povše, Darko Koritnik, Roman Kamink, Tadej Bajd and Marko Munih).

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