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Robot Morals

As robots become more common, we need to find ways to that the judgments they make reflect human moral values.

Robots are proliferating at an astounding rate. They are going where no human dares to tread, fighting fires and cleaning up radiation in Japan. As drones, they fight our wars and do our spying for us. In the future, they will mine asteroids in space. Soon, they may be doing YOUR job.

The military is the main designer of robots. A robot called the Sand Flea can leap through a window or onto a roof, filming all the while. It then rolls along on wheels until it needs to jump again. RiSE, a six-legged robo-cockroach, can climb walls. LS3, a dog-like robot, trots behind a human over rough terrain, carrying up to 180kg of supplies. SUGV, a briefcase-sized robot, can identify a man in a crowd and follow him. There is a flying surveillance drone the weight of a wedding ring, and one that carries almost 3 tons of bombs.

Robots are spreading in the civilian world, too, from the flight deck to the operating theater. Passenger aircraft have long been able to land themselves. Driverless trains are commonplace. Volvo’s new V40 hatchback essentially drives itself in heavy traffic. It can brake when it senses an imminent collision, as can Ford’s B-Max minivan. Fully self-driving vehicles are being tested around the world. Google's driverless cars have clocked up more than 250,000 miles in America, and Nevada has become the first state to regulate such trials on public roads. In Barcelona a few days ago, Volvo demonstrated a platoon of autonomous cars on a motorway.

So if you're a chauffeur or taxi driver, you may need to find another job!

As they become smarter and more widespread, robots will end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations. Drones and other weapons systems currently have human operators using remote control, but as they grow more sophisticated, these machines will be able to carry out orders autonomously.

As that happens, they will be presented with ethical dilemmas. Should a drone fire on a house where a target is known to be hiding, which may also be sheltering civilians? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid pedestrians if that means hitting other vehicles or endangering its occupants? Should a robot involved in disaster recovery tell people the truth about what is happening if that risks causing a panic?

The International Committee for Robot Arms Control was formed in opposition to the growing use of drones. But robots could do much more good than harm. Robot soldiers would not commit rape, burn down a village in anger or become erratic decision-makers amid the stress of combat. Driverless cars are very likely to be safer than ordinary vehicles, as autopilots have made planes safer. Robot designer Sebastian Thrun says that driverless cars could save one million lives a year--that, in itself, is moral. 

YOU'RE not a robot, so act like a human and do the moral thing: Subscribe to the website you say you love so much, so we'll still be here tomorrow!



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