It is indisputable that robotics, coupled with AI and data integration, presents unparalleled solutions for societal challenges—from addressing labour shortages to tackling difficult, repetitive, or dangerous tasks and meeting the needs of an aging population. However, the integration of robots depends on societal acceptance. To advance socially acceptable robotics, responsible robotics practices aim to help the industry align with societal values and expectations. This article, stemming from the Robotics4EU workshop at the AI, Data, Robotics Forum in Versailles, France, on November 9th, features experts from policy, industry, and academia:
- Prof. Dr. Philip A.E. Brey, professor of philosophy and ethics of technology at the University of Twente
- Cem Gulec, Programme and Policy Officer – Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, at the European Commission
- Dr. Susanne Bieller, General Secretary at the International Federation of Robotics
- Prof. Dr. Juha Röning, Professor of Embedded System at the University of Oulu
It delves into the challenges of robotics, deliberating on trust, safety, and engagement, while proposing policy actions for the advancement of responsible robotics.
Robotics beyond AI: The dimension of physicality
Compared to America and Asia, the European attitude towards robots and AI is somewhat concerned, critical, and fearful, as noted by Dr. Susanne Bieller. Thus, high ethical standards steer the development of AI with a focus on trustworthiness and explainability. The devotion to trustworthiness is ingrained in the new legislation around AI. However, building trust in robotics needs separate attention from AI, as robotics first amplifies the impacts of AI by bringing them to real life and adding the dimension of physicality, raising new opportunities and risks. Robots, with their potential for causing physical harm, invading privacy through cameras and sensors, fostering complex relationships with humans, posing cybersecurity threats, and operating in intricate environments, pose multifaceted challenges.
Trust beyond Safety
So, what ensures trust in robotics? From a research and industry perspective, trust is mainly related to safety. The quest of the researchers, designers, and developers is to ensure that the machine works well and does not harm people around it, noted Prof. Juha Röning. Societal acceptance, highlighted by Prof. Philip Brey, extends beyond safety concerns. It depends on social and ethical acceptability concerning challenges like employment, worker displacement, and potential psychological harm. For example, are humanoid robots socially acceptable? To what extent do we want relations between people to be replaced by relations with machines if we accept companion robots and co-bots? Building trust also relies on the workings and impacts of technology itself and broader contextual and relational factors such as business models, partnerships, and organizational structures. To trust technology means trusting the companies that create these technologies.
How to build trust? Engagement and education
The European solution to building trust is found in the question—relying on values. The deliberation on which areas are acceptable for the integration of robotics and in which areas people are not willing to exchange human contact for machine interaction is a fundamental freedom of democratic society, Dr. Susanne Bieller noted. Also, the society-wide discourse on the direction of robotics shall go hand in hand with the multi-stakeholder engagement in robotics’ design and development process, ensuring the representation of various societal groups. Education is pivotal to building trust by dispelling misconceptions and addressing over-expectations that hinder technology acceptance. Dr. Susanne Bieller stresses the need for society to possess reliable information about robot systems and understand their functionality, data collection processes, and the societal benefits they bring, especially in public domains like hospitals. Moreover, education is crucial in closing the widening labour and skills gap and addressing current needs and future skill demands.
Into practice through strategies and policies
How do we advance these proposals in industry practice? How do we ingrain them into policies? The opportunity window appears to advocate for more focus on responsible robotics, as the European Commission aims to develop a comprehensive AI-powered robotics strategy, focusing on trust and societal acceptance of robotics. Robotics4EU, compiling the community insights, proposes the following priorities for robotics policies:
- Promoting the engagement of a wide array of actors in the formulation of robotics policies and the development of products.
- Supporting the industry in steering the responsible development of robotics.
- Ensuring adherence to responsible robotics principles in safety, data, ethics, and sustainability.
- Advancement of solutions to socio-economic challenges.
Call to Action!
We invite you to have a say on what needs to be done in the policy dimension to advance responsible robotics! Here is the survey to voice your ideas and feedback on the proposed actions developed by Robotics4EU (read the factsheet on the recommendations). Or, as a robot creator, use a self-assessment tool to evaluate how well you follow responsible robotics practices yourself!