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Ethical and social implications

The application of rapidly advancing fields of software and hardware engineering and biotechnology to recreate life or intelligence raises ethical and social issues. There is an ethical responsibility on the part of the creator to ensure that the robot or virtual pet causes no harm. There is also the impact of new technology on society. On the one hand, replacing people with robots may reduce labour costs and contribute to unemployment in society, but new jobs in the information technology industry are created.

Ethical implications
Robots appeared in fiction as early as 1917, and by the 1920s writers were already depicting the robot as a mechanical worker or servant that could be either an aid or a menace to humanity. The word robot was first used in the 1921 play R U R (Rossum's Universal Robots), by Czech writer, Karel Capek.

Remember that in Mary Shelley's novel Dr Frankenstein was so terrified of his creation that he ran away, leaving the 'monster' to fend for himself, with nobody to care for him and teach him. The creation carried out a terrible plan of revenge on its maker. The message in this is a question of ethics. If we start making creatures that are alive and intelligent, then we have to start thinking about how we will treat them, or suffer the consequences.

Three Laws of Robotics
In I, Robot Isaac Asimov discussed the behaviour and thoughts of robots and devised Three Laws of Robotics. A robot:

  • may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm
  • must obey orders given to him by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
  • must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Asimov, 1950: 8)

Discuss why these laws may be important for an owner of an Aibo.

Social implications
Since the introduction of automation in industry (the first major automation was achieved on weaving looms, and its opponents were called luddites) there has been an understandable fear of the introduction of technology. Automated looms were designed to do the same job as the weavers. Thousands of workers lost their jobs when these machines were introduced. More recently the introduction (from 1980) of automated tellers has displaced thousands of jobs in the banking industry.

Labour-intensive heavy industries were quick to adopt robotic technologies in the interests of perceived efficiencies, safety and economy. Robots can work round the clock, are easier to repair, don't get sick and don't require staff amenities. Replacing people with robots was seen as a way of reducing labour costs, workers' compensation and union influence. The replacement of people by automated systems contributes to unemployment in society, especially for the most disadvantaged group — unskilled workers — which can result in long-term unemployment.

Robots have also created new jobs directly and can create wealth, leading to the development of new industries and jobs.

Identify the rights and responsibilities of Sony to the public in relation to the Aibo.

For additional information on ethics:
American Association of Artificial Intelligence web site.

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