14 May 2019

DMU researcher brings robot experts together to debate ethical practice

The future of robot development could begin to move in a new direction after AI experts met with researchers at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) to discuss the industry.

By David Cowan

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 Leading figures from some of the world’s biggest robotic technology firms visited Leicester to talk to Professor Kathleen Richardson, professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at DMU. Together, they conducted a research experiment for the EU-funded REELER (Responsible Ethical Learning with Robotics) project, of which Professor Richardson is a member.

The group looked at why some robot technologies fail and the balance between making profits and observing ethical considerations in creating artificial life. “REELER is a research-driven collaboration between social scientists, innovation economists and roboticists,” explained Professor Richardson, who is also a member of DMU’s Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (CCSR),  one of Europe’s premier academic sites for researching ethics and new technologies. “At REELER we engage with robotic businesses and communities to try and understand the ethical and social impact that new technologies can have,” she said.

The group - which included experts from the UK, Germany, Italy and Denmark - took part in a sociodrama experiment to explore how ethical practice can be useful to robot developers who want to contribute to social development but still make a profit. “Sociodramas encourage people with conflicting views to act out assigned roles in order to see the issue from a different perspective,” said Professor Richardson. “We wanted to explore a more creative research method that allows people from different backgrounds to work together to come up with new ideas.”

Dr James Laws, senior experimental officer at Sheffield Robotics, was one of the participants. He said: “The issue of ethics in robotics is very important and it’s clear to see from the sociodrama that there needs to be more communication between the different stakeholders. We see so many robots being deployed that are later rejected because they are not having the desired impact. We need to find a way where all of the invested stakeholders can be involved throughout the robotic development process so that we get it right the first time.”

Dr Philip Lance, a member of the BSI’s (the UK Government’s National Standards Body) robotics ethics committee, said: “If you are a robotic developer and something has worked for a long time, it can be dangerous to get into the mindset that it will still work in the future because technology is advancing so quickly. It was encouraging to see, however, that everyone taking part in the sociodrama agreed that the relationship between developing a robot and considering the ethical impact needs to be managed better.”

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