Sunday, June 09, 2013

BPN 1638: Robot ethics

I could start this blog posting with a sexist sentence: she is young, she is pretty and she is smart. But from now on she will be unique for her new position in robot ethics in Australia. Dr Christy Dena has been awarded Australia’s first ever digital writing residency to explore robot ethics at Queensland University of Technology's using high-end technology suites like The Cube, the world-leading, large scale, high-definition interactive display environment. She will be the creator of a project called Robot University. Unusual is also that as a writer in residence she will be assisted by a team of technicians and artists and draw on research done for inspiration. There is a lot of expectation as she will have to take the science fiction of Asimov in six months to another level.

It is surprising and interesting to see that Dr Christy Dena has been selected. Her background could be qualified as one in digital media, ranging from cross media to transmedia. I met her at a conference in the North of Sweden in 2007, where we had a long and fierce discussion on cross-media and its implications. After that she took up an invitation to visit The Netherlands and present a guest lecture at the NHL at Leeuwarden. In 2009 she wrote her thesis on:  Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments. Superficially this could indicate a future in cross-media and more specifically in gaming. But her interest is deeper. In gaming she is confronted with robot characters, which are representations of present and future life.

Robots are becoming part of our lives. If you are really ahead of the troops you have a robot hoover or a robot grass mower at home. Employees in car factories have become familiar with robot machines. In warfare and surveillance drones are becoming more common. In research robot are used to collect for example ocean data, while in classrooms lectures are being delivered and foreign languages taught. Of course robots themselves are subject to cognitive studies. In health and medical healthcare robots are used in difficult surgical procedures.

We are presently in the phase of domestication of robot machines. They are still steered by people. But with drones the discussion has already started on the decision capability of drones; they recognise an object and start automatically to fire on it. This type of decisions leads to ethical discussions. And as robots are becoming part of our society and will assist people at the bedside, we should be sure that they harbour some good characteristics and do not start beating up slow pensionados.

But robots have also started to penetrate in entertainment. Besides using them for edutainment, we have seen customer robots like cuddly Furby (left) and Aibo (right) to play with. More robots have appeared in games and are used as good and bad robots, following the division of a black and white world. In this environment Dr Christy Dena will do her work. In fact she takes it as her task to challenge our perceptions of robots by exploring our responsibility to build ethical and mutually-beneficial relationships with them.

It is not entirely surprising that she as a game pro was appointed to this positio. Yet its a heavy assignment, which will be in good hands with her and worthwhile to be followed closely. Of course her mission will be really successful if the Robot University is eventually started and she becomes a professor.

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