Everyone should think about the ethics of the work they do, and
the work they choose not to do. Artificial Intelligence and
robots often seem like fun science fiction, but in fact
affect our daily lives. For example, services like Google
and Amazon help us find what we want by using AI. They learn
both from us and about us when we use them. The USA and some
other countries and organizations now employ robots in
Since 1996 I have been writing about AI and Society, including
maintaining this web page. I was worried because some
researchers got into the news by claiming that AI or intelligent
robots would one day take over the world. This page was
originally about why that wasn't going to happen.
But by 2008 the USA had more robots in Iraq than allied troops
(about 9,000). Also, several prominent scientists began
publicly working on the problem of making robots ethical.
The problem here is not the robots taking over the world, but that
some people want to pretend that robots are responsible for
themselves. In fact, robots belong to us. People,
governments and companies build, own and program robots.
Whoever owns and operates a robot is responsible for what it does.
The purpose of this page is to
explain why people worry about the wrong things when they worry
I hope that by writing this page, I can help us worry about the
Why Build AI?
If robots might take over the world, or machines might learn to
predict our every move or purchase, or governments might try to
put the blame robots for their own unethical policy decisions,
then why would anyone work on advancing AI? My personal
reason for building AI is simple: I want to help people
Our society faces many hard problems, like protecting the
environment, avoiding and ending wars, and dealing with the
consequences of overpopulation
while protecting human rights. These problems are so hard,
they might actually be impossible to solve. But building and
using AI is one way we might figure out some answers. If we
have tools to help us think, they might make us smarter. And
if we have tools that help us understand how we think,
that might help us find ways to be happier.
Of course, all knowledge and tools, including AI, can be used for
good or for bad. This is why it's important to think about
what AI is, and how we want it to be used. This page is
designed to help people (including me) think about the ethics of
1) AI has the same
ethical problems as other, conventional artifacts.
In the mid-1990s I attended a number of talks that made me
realize that some people really expected AI to replace
humans. Some people were excited about this, and some were
afraid. Some of these people were well-known
scientists. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that they were all
making a very basic mistake. They were afraid that whatever
was smartest would "win", somehow. But we already have
calculators that can do math better than us, and they don't even
take over the pockets they live in, let alone the world.
My friend Phil
Kime agreed with me, and added that he thought the problem
was that people didn't have enough direct, personal experience of
AI to really understand whether or not it was human. So we
wrote one of my first published papers, Just Another Artifact: Ethics and the
Empirical Experience of AI. We first wrote it in 1996;
it eventually got partially published in 1998 in a cybernetics
workshop. Recently we decided it was worth rewriting and
publishing the paper properly, so a radically updated version Just
an Artifact: Why Machines are Perceived as Moral Agents,
appeared in the proceedings of The Twenty-Second International
Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI '11).
We argue that realistic experience of AI would help us better
judge what it means to be human, and help us get over our
over-identification with AI systems. We pointed out that
there are ethical issues with AI, but they are all the
same issues we have with other artifacts we build and value or
rely on, such as fine art or sewage plants.
2) AI builders have an
obligation not to exploit people's ignorance and make them think
AI is human.
In the paper I propose creating a league of programmers
dedicated to opposing the misuse of AI technology to exploit
people's natural emotional empathy. The slogans would be
things like "AI: Art not Soul" or Robot's
In 2000 I didn't know that the US military was going to try to
give robots ethical obligations, so the whole paper is written in
a fairly humorous style. As AI has gotten better, the issues
have gotten more serious. Fortunately, people are getting
serious about them too. I was invited to help the British Robotics
funding agency, the EPSRC discuss this topic, and was heavily
involved in writing their Principles
of Robotics. So a lot of the ideas in my HAL paper are now
UK policy. The five principles are:
Robots should not be designed as weapons, except for national security reasons.
Robots should be designed and operated to comply with existing law,
Robots are products: as with other products, they should be designed to be
safe and secure.
Robots are manufactured artefacts: the illusion of emotions and intent
should not be used to exploit vulnerable users.
It should be possible to find out who is responsible for any robot.
By coincidence, at the same time I was writing the final version
of that book chapter, I got asked to comment on an article by Anne
Foerst called Robots and Theology. Anne and I had worked
on the Cog project at the MIT AI
Laboratory together in 1995. In fact, we've argued about
this before, but I think the arguments are better phrased
now. Anne has the interesting perspective that robots are
capable of being persons and knowing sin, and as such are a part
of the spiritual world. I argue in Building Persons is a Choice
that while it is interesting to use robots to reason about what it
means to be human, calling them "human" dehumanises real
people. Worse, it gives people the excuse to blame robots
for their actions, when really anything a robot does is entirely our own
Machine Question: AI, Ethics and Moral Responsibility, David J. Gunkel,
Joanna J. Bryson and Steve
Torrance, (eds.). A symposium proceedings published
by The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and
Simulation of Behaviour. Papers focus on the ethics of
considering artificially intelligent artefacts as moral agents
(actors responsible for their behaviour) and / or moral patients
(individuals deserving of moral consideration / ethical
treatment.) Symposium ran 3-5 July, 2012, these papers
were delivered a few weeks before that. Lead to the 2014
an Artifact: Why Machines are Perceived as Moral Agents,
with Philip P. Kime, in the proceedings of
The Twenty-Second International Joint Conference on Artificial
Intelligence (IJCAI '11). Final camera-ready version from
April 2011. This is a substantial updating &
improvement of one of my (and Phil's) very first papers "Just
Another Artifact" which we gave at a workshop in 1998.
Persons is a Choice an invited commentary on an article by
Anne Foerst called Robots and Theology, in Erwägen Wissen Ethik20(2):195-197
(2009). It isn't that AI couldn't conceivably deserve ethical
obligation, rather it would be unethical for us to allow it to.
Other work besides formal publications on the topic:
January 2015: I debated James Barratt again for the
Channel 4 News
super-intelligent machines kill us all?. Unfortunately, that page has a
lot of Bostrom / Musk on it, but also our video. We
were supposed to be talking about middle-class income, but Barratt made it about
battlefield robots. Of course, I know a lot about those too...
April 2011: The
EPSRC released their Principles
of Robotics. I'm one of the authors and contributed
a lot to the text there. The principles were written at a
special meeting the EPSRC held on robot ethics in September
January 2011: I've accepted an invitation to join Lifeboat,
though I don't know much about them. Apparently I am helping
safeguard humanity from robots and AI. If you send me
email with any comments pro and con about Lifeboat, I'd
August 2008: I'm one of the experts interviewed for
the Heart Robot
Thanks for linking to my 1998 paper (Just Another
Artifact: Ethics and the Empirical Experience of AI), but I
think your argument is a gross oversimplification of my and
Phil Kime's point. Of course autonomous robot weapons
can kill you, and are killing people now. But it isn't
because some AI has turned evil. AI is no more to blame
than other artifacts of our culture, like our foreign
policy. Rather than worrying about AI specifically,
people should be worrying about government, culture and
decision making in general. The threats (and promises)
of AI are real, but not as unique as people think. I
believe the "singularity" & "ethical robots" (e.g. Arkin)
debates are a distraction from the real problem of designing
and choosing appropriate governing techniques and assigning
appropriate responsibility and blame for societal-level
decisions that affect us all.
July 2000: A snippet of private email & some
off-the-record comments on robots taking over the world were reported
by The Register. I didn't correct the record until the
same text mysteriously turned up in The Guardian four
years later (and therefore on the first page of Google searches
for me). Blay & I apparently got the first ever
"correction"/apology from Bad Science, but they still
got my title & institution wrong.
On a less related note than a lot of people think, I also write
about consciousness, both machine &
not. This work came around partly because so many people
associate consciousness and ethics, but do they know why?
Creating Friendly AI
from the singularity
folks. One day in 1995, my friends from the MIT AI Lab and
I went over to the Media Lab to see a talk about the "coming
singularity" (when AI becomes smarter than people) by Vernor
Vinge. That talk was one of the reasons I wanted to write
"Just Another Artifact". We left the talk before it was
over because it generally seemed silly and was getting
repetitive and we needed to get back to work. But on the
way back, while I was listening to some of my fairly brilliant
friends (e.g. Charles Isbell and Carl de Marken) belittle the
chances of their AI ever being able to take over a toaster, it
did remind me of the scientists of Los Alamos betting
facetiously on the effect size of the first atomic bomb.
Here's what Vinge
was thinking in 2008. A bit more positive than a
decade earlier, but otherwise similar. I do think it's
good to have people who really think about the long term.
Some of the arguments in the AI Companions piece were
inspired by White Dot.