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Living with robots: The ethics of human-robot relationships

As part of her visit to Brunel University London, Professor Anne Cranny-Francis will be giving a research lecture on the ethics of human-robot relationships.

Humans have been living with robots for a very long time.  The Western pre-history of robots includes Greek mathematician Archytas’ steam-powered artificial bird from around 400BCE; Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for a mechanical knight from 1495; and the automaton figure of a praying monk, built around 1560.  As the London Science Museum’s recent exhibition demonstrated, robots have been with us for thousands of years, built according to the technology of their time – water-powered, steam-powered, and now digital.  

At the same time the cultural imaginary about robots has incorporated them into our daily lives. We and our children have been raised with a steady stream of robot companions, from Robby the service robot in the film, Forbidden Planet to Astro Boy and Gigantor, C3PO and R2D2, Dr Smith’s companion robot in Lost in Space and his recent re-boot, the Nexus-6 androids of Blade Runner, the androids of the Terminator franchise, Data of Star Trek: the Next Generation, the good and bad androids of the Alien franchise, and the recent dramatizations of the problems and possibilities raised by the development of humanoid robots in the Swedish series Humans and its British version, Real Humans, and the series, Westworld and movies such as Robot and Frank and ExMachina– the list is almost endless. 

We are now facing in a reality in which (industrial) robots have taken over many human jobs; where (service) robots share our homes; (military) robots fight our wars; and (companion) robots may even share our beds.  The World Robotics Forum 2017 Report on Industrial Robots records sales of 294,712 units in 2016, an increase of 16% on the previous year and the fourth year of steady increase in sales, and estimates that between 2017 and 2020 more than 1.7 million new robots will be installed in factories world-wide. The WR Report on Service Robots 2017 shows a 24% increase from the previous year to 59,706 units, far fewer than the industrial version. However, its estimates for sales of Service Robots between 2018 and 2020 are extraordinary: professional service robots 397,000 units; domestic service robots 32.4 million units; entertainment service robots 10.5 million robots. 

This paper explores the ethical issues raised by these robots and our relationships with them: what role do these robots play in our lives?  Why are we so fascinated by them? How can we understand our relationships with them? Do we need to become more tactical in the way we engage with them?

All welcome but please register attendance with Jo Lakey.