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Horizon-scanning: Ethics for Robots – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? by John Sawkins

The driver-less car is already here: how many of us knew that it will be pre-programmed to make its own ethical decisions? For example, unlike the human driver, who would understandably, if given the option, seek to protect his or her family if the worst were to happen and a crash with lethal consequences occurred, the driverless car would dispassionately choose the option with the least number of casualties as opposed to saving the lives of its own passengers.

Driverless Car

We’ve got used to the “automatic pilot” on flights, so why not the same idea for terrestrial transport? I suppose it’s the worry that no human being will be allowed to override the robot’s decisions, and should GPS and other satellite systems fail, there is potential for carnage on a global scale.

Some would argue that it’s good to eliminate, or at least reduce considerably, any kind of risk. But isn’t that component a part of what makes us human? Without risk, who’s going to make the next leaps forward? – Maybe only the robots will be allowed such freedom?

The robot-doctor allegedly achieves a 90% success rate in diagnosis as opposed to its human counterpart, who only gets it right 50% of the time. In past technological revolutions, it was always the manual workers, or semi-skilled workers who lost their jobs to machines.

Now, even the professions are not safe! It is suggested that a medic with a couple of years of training (e.g. a pharmacist) could be apprenticed to the far superior robot, thus eliminating all that “unnecessary” eight years of studying. Even banking and the law, it is proposed, will similarly be encompassed in this de-professionalisation process.

In her book, The Cyber Effect, Dr Mary Aiken examines the subtle – and sometimes less than subtle – changes in human behaviour that our reliance on new technologies and especially the internet is bringing about. One poignant observation she picks out that all of us have probably witnessed at some point if we use public transport, is the scenario of the mother and baby where crucially there is no eye contact established between the two because the mother is on her smart phone, blissfully unaware of her infant’s needs. This, crucially, says Aiken, conditions the child not to understand the importance of eye-contact in communication.

But not only do we fail to communicate: we have also virtually lost our autonomy to machines, since our regular patterns of computer-use have made us slaves to algorithms that predetermine our predilections. The path of least resistance makes us lazy and only too happy to let technology take over and facilitate our lives. But our imagined greater freedom after having chores taken over by machines actually makes us become slaves to our robot masters.

John Sawkins, 29 December 2016.

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