An Ethical Roboticist: the journey so far

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What do robots have to do with ethics? And how do you end up with the job of “roboethicist”? Prof. Alan Winfield, Director of the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, explains his recent professional journey.

It was November 2009 that I was invited, together with Noel Sharkey, to present to the EPSRC Societal Impact Panel on robot ethics. That was I think my first serious foray into robot ethics. An outcome of that meeting was being asked to co-organise a joint AHRC/EPSRC workshop on robot ethics – which culminated in the publication of the Principles of Robotics in 2011: on the EPSRC website, and with a writeup in New Scientist.

Shortly after that I was invited to join a UK robot ethics working group which then became part of the British Standards Institute technical committee working toward a Standard on Robot Ethics. That standard was published earlier this month, as BS 8611:2016 Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems. Sadly the standard itself is behind a paywall, but the BSI press release gives a nice writeup. I think this is probably the world’s first standard for robot ethics and I’m very happy to have contributed to it.

Somehow during all of this I got described as a roboethicist; a job description I’m very happy with.

In parallel with this work and advocacy on robot ethics, I started to work on ethical robots; the other side of the roboethics coin. But, as I wrote in PC-PRO last year it took a little persuasion from a long term collaborator, Michael Fisher, that ethical robots were even possible. But since then we have experimentally demonstrated a minimally ethical robot; work that was covered in New Scientist, the BBC R4 Today programme and last year a Nature news article. I was especially pleased to be invited to present this work at the World Economic Forum, Davos, in January. Below is the YouTube video of my 5 minute IdeasLab talk, and a writeup.

 

 

To bring the story right up to date, the IEEE initiated an international initiative on Ethical Considerations in the Design of Autonomous Systems, and I am honoured to be co-chairing the General Principles committee, as well as sitting on the How to Imbue Ethics into AI committee. The significance of this is that the IEEE effort will be covering all intelligent technologies including robots and AI. I’ve become very concerned that AI is moving ahead very fast – much faster than robotics – and the need for ethical standards and ultimately regulation is even more urgent than in robotics.

 

It’s very good also to see that the UK government is taking these developments seriously. I was invited to a Government Office of Science round table in January on AI, and just last week submitted text to the parliamentary Science and Technology committee inquiry on Robotics and AI.

You can find out more about Alan’s research and engagement on his own blog.

The story behind the cameras: filming robots

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In 2013, just as I was finishing my Masters in Science Communication at UWE Bristol, I was asked to help film the euRathlon robotics competition in Germany. euRathlon was inspired by the situation that officials were faced with after the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011. The competition challenges robotics engineers to solve the problems of dealing with an emergency scenario, pushing innovation and creativity in the robotics domain. The project is led by Prof. Alan Winfield from UWE alongside seven other partner institutions. The 2015 euRathlon competition in Piombino, Italy combined land, sea and air challenges for the robots to overcome. Our 2015 film team included three of us (Josh Hayes Davidson on graphics, Charlie Nevett on camera and myself – Tim Moxon – as producer and sound engineer), taking with us all the lessons I learned from 2013.

Filming robots, particularly complex robots designed to respond to emergency scenarios, is a daunting task. Trying to make sure that we didn’t get too technical was always going to be a problem. We had the additional issue that English was not the first language of most of the people being interviewed which really added to the challenge. Taking care and with plenty of re-shoots we managed to get round both of the problems by sticking to the golden rules: take it slow and keep it simple. This made sure that we never lost sight of what we were trying to do. Our focus was always to bring 21st century robotics into the public eye.Picture 2

The first two days of the competition presented the individual land, sea and air trials. On site we first created two “meet the teams” films where we interviewed all 16 teams and got to know them. Luckily they were all super friendly and very cooperative which meant we got all the teams interviewed in two days. After that the real work began. The land trials were easy enough to film and get a good story line of shots as the robots were almost always visible.  However the underwater robots required a bit more imagination. In the end a GoPro on a piece of drift wood got us the shots we needed.


The aerial robots had some issues too as getting long distance shots was not always easy. Fortunately Josh and Charlie were more than up to the task.

Day 3 and 4 focused on combining two domains, so land and sea or air and land etc. Day 3 went well with fantastic interviews with judges and teams helping to really give some depth to the videos. Again underwater proved to be a bit challenging but we managed, with the help of some footage given to us by the teams that they took on-board their robots. Day 4 didn’t go as well as the second half of the competition had to be cancelled due to strong winds. Wind had been an issue throughout the competition and all of our equipment required regular cleaning to keep the dust out, as well as dealing with constant wind when recording sound.

That day however you could barely stand in the open for all the dust and sand being kicked up by the wind and getting good sound for interviews was nearly impossible. We could only hope that the weather improved for the Grand Challenge.

The final days were the Grand Challenge, as much for us filming as for those competing. The timescale was starting to tighten as we only had two days to film, cut and polish the remaining two videos. With increasing pressure to produce high quality products we pulled out all the stops. Fortunately all the teams rose to the occasion and provided us with some spectacular on-board footage as well as some nice underwater diver footage. The Grand Challenge turned out to be a great success with all the teams at least competing even if they didn’t all finish the challenge.

Tim Moxon completed the UWE Bristol Masters in Science Communication in 2013.

For more information about EuRathlon please visit the project website.