Want responsible robotics? Start with responsible humans

July 29, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When the legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov penned the "Three Laws of Responsible Robotics," he forever changed the way humans think about artificial intelligence, and inspired generations of engineers to take up robotics.

In the current issue of journal IEEE Intelligent Systems, two engineers propose alternative laws to rewrite our future with robots.

The future they foresee is at once safer, and more realistic.

"When you think about it, our cultural view of robots has always been anti-people, pro-robot," explained David Woods, professor of integrated systems engineering at Ohio State University. "The philosophy has been, 'sure, people make mistakes, but robots will be better -- a perfect version of ourselves.' We wanted to write three new laws to get people thinking about the human-robot relationship in more realistic, grounded ways."

Asimov's laws are iconic not only among engineers and science fiction enthusiasts, but the general public as well. The laws often serve as a starting point for discussions about the relationship between humans and robots.

But while evidence suggests that Asimov thought long and hard about his laws when he wrote them, Woods believes that the author did not intend for engineers to create robots that followed those laws to the letter.

"Go back to the original context of the stories," Woods said, referring to Asimov's I, Robot among others. "He's using the three laws as a literary device. The plot is driven by the gaps in the laws -- the situations in which the laws break down. For those laws to be meaningful, robots have to possess a degree of social intelligence and moral intelligence, and Asimov examines what would happen when that intelligence isn't there."

"His stories are so compelling because they focus on the gap between our aspirations about robots and our actual capabilities. And that's the irony, isn't it? When we envision our future with robots, we focus on our hopes and desires and aspirations about robots -- not reality."

In reality, engineers are still struggling to give robots basic vision and language skills. These efforts are hindered in part by our lack of understanding of how these skills are managed in the human brain. We are far from a time when humans may teach robots a moral code and responsibility.

Woods and his coauthor, Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University, composed three laws that put the responsibility back on humans.

Woods directs the Cognitive Systems Engineering Laboratory at Ohio State, and is an expert in automation safety. Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M, and is an expert in both rescue robotics and human-robot interaction.

Together, they composed three laws that focus on the human organizations that develop and deploy robots. They looked for ways to ensure high safety standards.

Here are Asimov's original three laws: And here are the three new laws that Woods and Murphy propose: The new first law assumes the reality that humans deploy robots. The second assumes that robots will have limited ability to understand human orders, and so they will be designed to respond to an appropriate set of orders from a limited number of humans.

The last law is the most complex, Woods said.

"Robots exist in an open world where you can't predict everything that's going to happen. The robot has to have some autonomy in order to act and react in a real situation. It needs to make decisions to protect itself, but it also needs to transfer control to humans when appropriate. You don't want a robot to drive off a ledge, for instance -- unless a human needs the robot to drive off the ledge. When those situations happen, you need to have smooth transfer of control from the robot to the appropriate human," Woods said.

"The bottom line is, robots need to be responsive and resilient. They have to be able to protect themselves and also smoothly transfer control to humans when necessary."

Woods admits that one thing is missing from the new laws: the romance of Asimov's fiction -- the idea of a perfect, moral robot that sets engineers' hearts fluttering.

"Our laws are little more realistic, and therefore a little more boring," he laughed.
-end-


Ohio State University

Related Engineering Articles from Brightsurf:

Re-engineering antibodies for COVID-19
Catholic University of America researcher uses 'in silico' analysis to fast-track passive immunity

Next frontier in bacterial engineering
A new technique overcomes a serious hurdle in the field of bacterial design and engineering.

COVID-19 and the role of tissue engineering
Tissue engineering has a unique set of tools and technologies for developing preventive strategies, diagnostics, and treatments that can play an important role during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Engineering the meniscus
Damage to the meniscus is common, but there remains an unmet need for improved restorative therapies that can overcome poor healing in the avascular regions.

Artificially engineering the intestine
Short bowel syndrome is a debilitating condition with few treatment options, and these treatments have limited efficacy.

Reverse engineering the fireworks of life
An interdisciplinary team of Princeton researchers has successfully reverse engineered the components and sequence of events that lead to microtubule branching.

New method for engineering metabolic pathways
Two approaches provide a faster way to create enzymes and analyze their reactions, leading to the design of more complex molecules.

Engineering for high-speed devices
A research team from the University of Delaware has developed cutting-edge technology for photonics devices that could enable faster communications between phones and computers.

Breakthrough in blood vessel engineering
Growing functional blood vessel networks is no easy task. Previously, other groups have made networks that span millimeters in size.

Next-gen batteries possible with new engineering approach
Dramatically longer-lasting, faster-charging and safer lithium metal batteries may be possible, according to Penn State research, recently published in Nature Energy.

Read More: Engineering News and Engineering Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.