The Future of Robotics: Its Ethical Frontiers and Future Directions

The need for ethics in robotics has been highlighted by a critical analysis of the studies by Noel Sharkey (The Ethical Frontiers of Robotics) and Goodman and Einspruch (The Way Forward in the World of Robotics). Goodman and Einspruch disagreed with Noel's points of view, which Noel Sharkey subsequently backed up with a statement. The concept of widespread use of robotic technology in daily life and by the military needs to be reexamined because ethics now plays a significant role in global decisions following World War II, which resulted in a significant loss of life due to a lack of ethical considerations. Noel Sharkey, the professor of computer science, in ‘Ethical Frontiers of Robotics’ has analyzed the field of robotics by applying ethics in its operation. There has been major development in the field of robotic technology which makes it a subject of critical analysis for many experts apart from the fact that robotic development involves a deep effect on human lives. Sharkey has explored the idea of ethical risk in robotics based on three major fields namely child care, elderly care and the development of autonomous robot weapons by the government or the military of different nations. Developing the robotic sciences in the areas of face recognition expression of emotions, language and artificial intelligence has replaced the presence of human beings to another human being but not very effectively, as Noel Sharkey suggests in the essay.

Making the argument stronger he gives scientific evidence where he says that there have been evidences that go on to explain the behavior of infant animals tends to get dysfunctional when attached to inanimate surrogate. There is a vital need in the public to discuss the extent to which the robots must be used in parenting and elderly care as well as war weapon. According to Sharkey, the threats are quite visible of the robotic developments on children yet there has not been much formulation of policies and legislation on the national and international level.

Secom “My Spoon” is a robot that helps in feeding the old people and so is the Sanyo electric bath tub helping in washing and cleaning. Mitsubishi Wakamura is devised to timely remind of the medicine. But the question is how far the independence that robot provide is ethically viable. It is equally important that these old people are helped by the human caregivers and have the face to face presence of people. This aspect might be overlooked by machines which cannot substantiate all the human emotions but only alleviate the isolation that they suffer from. Noel Sharkey does not overlook the fact that there are a few robots that are designed to behave like pets so that the senior citizens living alone may use as company but that does not fill the ethical gap that has not been filled yet.

The third major area that Sharkey points out in the essay mentioned above is the war weaponry where there is extensive use and application of robots. There has been a growing dependency on robots by military. The combined forces of Iraq and Afghanistan has put on action around 5000 mobile robots. SWORD and MAARS are two major other examples of combat robots that though haven’t been reported of damage, is highly dangerous to human lives. MQ1 Predator and MQ9 Reapers can carry the Hellfire missiles to the targeted area. As he writes in the report, these semiautonomous robots have been used in many strikes that has only added to the number of innocent deaths. One can never overlook the fact that the computational system that has been installed in the robots cannot identify the combatants from the innocents and vice versa. The final point made in the essay reflects a concern of the writer Noel where he says that there must be serious consideration of the ethical issues in robotics as holistic approach is the key to sustainable development of society and maintenance of harmony.

The Way Forward in the World of Robotics

Kenneth W Goodman and Norman Einspruch in their work titled ‘The Way Forward in the World of Robotics’ regard the arguments of Noel Sharkey in the essay ‘Ethical Frontiers of Robotics’ as ‘exaggeration’. They said that though there has been increase in the production of robots for child care, one cannot classify this as a threat to child upbringing or child abuse and there is no emotional compromising involved in using these. Though they both agreed to the fact that robots cannot be a positive effect on the development on the child there has not been any empirical research done which would prove the point. There are high chances that empirical research may not find any of the harmful effects that Noel Sharkey has mentioned. Again adopting a neutral stance they say that killing of innocence no doubt is a matter to be concerned about, yet, here too, we must rely on the empirical research as it is only then that the extent of casualties may be measured.

According to Goodman and Einspruch, pointing out the ethical risk is not the only thing that applied ethics is concerned with. Applied ethics must also present a detailed analysis of the challenges brought about by the development of technologies as well as find out suitable precautions in order to provide a complete solution to ethical gaps that according to Sharkey has developed. There is need for much more research to be done in this field than just pointing out the ethical issues. There are big agencies that are engaged in funding the manufacture of these robots. It is the prime duty of these agencies of taking care of the ethical risks that arise. There must be availability of resources that are solely devoted to the ethical issues at the same time also covering the social and legal issues.

Response by Noel Sharkey

The comments by Goodman and Einspruch was, of course, critically analyzed by Noel Sharkey and a response was provided by him. He agreed that ethical issues must not only be concerned with ‘worst case scenario’. But the issues that he has mentioned in the report are urgent ones and need immediate tending. He completely refutes the idea of empirical research and studies to be conducted and this is a valid point made by him as the loss of life is something that needs immediate action and must be taken up by various international agencies and the ethical codes must be made mandatory for the various industries that take robots as a major equipment. The development that has been taking place in war machineries go on to demonstrate the increasing number of casualties. The loss of life has been increasing since World War II. The empirical methods are reliable source of getting to a conclusion but cannot be the sole way of research when the lives of people are at stake. The empirical studies cannot be relied upon when it comes to finding out the number of non-combatants death as technology and science cannot differentiate between the combatants and the non-combatants. Just as censor fused weapons have been banned in many countries the robot controlled weapons must also be banned.

Further, the matter of child care has been dismissed as special case of ‘ubiquitous medical computing, smart homes and telemedicine’ that Goodman and Einspruch mentioned. There is a danger of adverse psychological development in a child who is exposed to child care robots for longer period of time. In fact in child care even the empirical studies, as Sharkey said, has agreed to the fact that longer period of neglect of child and child care is not advisable.


A close reading and critical analysis of all three readings has shown that child and elderly care may be, to some extent, exposed to the robotic development but the matter must be seriously taken up if it involves the loss of lives. The robots used in war is incapable of protecting the innocents. Elderly and child care may be regarded as voluntary choices of the individuals and family but war is a deathly consequences faced by innocents.

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