The robots are coming, and they’re getting smarter. They’re evolving from single-task devices like Roomba and its floor-mopping, pool-cleaning cousins into machines that can make their own decisions and autonomously navigate public spaces. Thanks to artificial intelligence, machines are getting better at understanding our speech and detecting and reflecting our emotions. In many ways, they’re becoming more like us.
Whether you find it exhilarating or terrifying (or both), progress in robotics and related fields like AI is raising new ethical quandaries and challenging legal codes that were created for a world in which a sharp line separates man from machine. Last week, roboticists, legal scholars, and other experts met at the University of California, Berkeley law school to talk through some of the social, moral, and legal hazards that are likely to arise as that line starts to blur.
At a panel discussion on July 11, the discussion ranged from whether police should be allowed to have drones that can taser suspected bad guys to whether life-like robots should have legal rights. One of the most provocative topics was robot intimacy. If, for example, pedophilia could be eradicated by assigning child-like robots to sex offenders, would it be ethical to do that? Is it even ethical to do the research to find out if it would work?
“We’re poised at the cusp of really being surrounded by robots in daily life,” said Jennifer Urban, the Berkeley law professor who moderated the panel. That’s why now is the time to start grappling with these questions, Urban says. A future filled with robots may be inevitable, but we still have an opportunity to shape it. Below are five thought-provoking themes that emerged from the discussion.