A tank-like robot in a field

Ensuring a safe robotic future

We could be rushing headlong into a revolution in robotics without due caution.

Think about the sudden rapid development of the internet when it reached a critical mass of consumers. It was almost entirely populated by academics through the 1980s. A decade later it had broken loose and was changing the world and being put to uses that few of us could have imagined. Robotics could be close to a similar turning point.

Robot sales went up dramatically in 2014 with an even sharper rise predicted for 2018 according to the International Federation for Robotics. Sales of industrial robots rose to US$35 billion and are predicted to nearly double by 2018. But more surprising is the upsurge in service robots for everything from healthcare to the care of children and the elderly, from cooking and preparing food to making and serving cocktails, from domestic cleaning to agriculture and farming, from policing, security and killing in armed conflict to monitoring climate change and protecting endangered species.

Surprisingly, 4.7 million robots were sold for personal and domestic use in 2014 including a 542% increase in the number of assistive robots for the elderly and disabled. This figure is forecast to rise to 35 million to 2018 at a conservative estimate. And the predictions do not include rapid developments of driverless technology for cars and trucks that are set to change our roads forever and revolutionise our transport and delivery services as well as change farming practices with automated tractors, powers and threshing machines.

The lure of massive new international markets is driving Governments and corporations to view robotics as a powerful economic driver and they are starting to pour funding into developments. Many more companies and startups are getting in on the act to create a multitude of new robot applications in what is becoming a highly competitive market that will drive innovation. It is difficult to predict future developments as robotics joins the Internet of Things (i.e. devices connected over the internet) and new developments in big data and machine learning are incorporated. Despite the disruptive impact that such automation could have in our workplaces, our streets and our homes, little more than lip service is being paid to the potential societal and ethical hazards. It is time now to step back and think hard about what action is required for the future of robotics so that we can create and increase public trust in the technology? This is why Noel Sharkey and Aimee van Wynsberghe co-founded the Foundation for Responsible Robotics together with more than 20 of the world’s leading tech scholars, writers and roboticists in 2015. It is now growing very rapidly with many new members and partners.

A lot has been written about ethical and societal issues in robotics both in general and on specific applications since the early 2000s. But it was clear that we urgently need to bridge the gap between these discussions and concrete action such as developing codes of conduct for responsible and accountable research, design and manufacturing practice as well as assisting and advocating for new national and international policy formation and the generation of new regulations and laws.

It is vital to this enterprise that all stakeholders are involved. It requires an integrated multidisciplinary approach combining law, social science, philosophy and robotics research and design working in tandem with manufacturers, policy and law makers as well as engaging with the public. This is essential if we are to strive for responsible and accountable developments and practice in robotics without stifling innovation or trampling on people’s research or commerce.

The Foundation for Responsible Robotics is also concerned about maintaining progress and innovation in robotics research. If it is to be sustainable, public trust must be engendered. The public needs to be assured that new developments will be created responsibly and with due consideration of their human rights and freedom of choice. Early mistakes could set the field back by many years and stifle research. This is why engaging with the public is vital. It is difficult for policy makers and the legislators to keep up with such rapidly emerging developments. So, it is paramount that the scientists, researchers and manufacturers develop a socially responsible attitude to their work and promote ethical and societal principles of fairness and justice to ensure that robotics has a successful future in helping humanity.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Building a Future with Robots

The University of Sheffield

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: