Last updated August 2013

Ethics: Robots, AI, and Society

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 already 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 warfare. 

JB holding a hokey
          zapping ball thing, T shirt says `question technology'.

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 about AI.

I hope that by writing this page, I can help us worry about the right things.

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 think.

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 AI research.

To start out with the basics: here's a Definition of Artificial Intelligence I coauthored with Jeremy Wyatt for the Children's Britannica.  And here is an interview where an American high school student asks me about studying AI.

The Ethics of AI (and Robots)

Bryson's three laws :-)

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.

It is not enough for experts to understand the role of AI in society.  We also have a profession obligation to communicate that understanding to non-experts.  The people who will use and buy AI should know what its risks really are.  Unfortunately, it's easier to get famous and sell robots if you go around pretending that your robot really needs to be loved, or otherwise really is human – or super human!  I wrote an article about this called A Proposal for the Humanoid Agent-builders League (HAL).  This was presented at The Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics and (Quasi-)Human Rights at AISB 2000, which was a great meeting.

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 Won't Rule

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.

3)  Robots are not really your friends.

In October 2007, I was invited to participate in a workshop called Artificial Companions in Society: Perspectives on the Present and Future at the Oxford Internet Institute.  I took the chance to write my third ethics article, Robots Should Be Slaves. This is now a book chapter in Close Engagements with Artificial Companions:  Key social, psychological, ethical and design issues, published by John Benjamins in March 2010, edited by Yorick Wilks.  The idea is not that we should abuse robots (and of course it isn't that human slavery was OK!)  The idea is that a robot is just a servant you own, completely.  In fact, even though you may need robots to have and understand things like emotions, it is still both possible and ethically obligatory not to make them suffer from neglect or lack of self-actualization or social dominance in the way a person might.  Robots are things we build, and so we can pick their goals and behaviours.  Both buyers and builders ought to pick those goals sensibly.

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 things, when really anything a robot does is entirely our own responsibility.


More from me:

For formal citations of the papers by me mentioned on these pages (and much more) see my publications pageHere is a list of my AI / Robot ethics publications:
Other work besides formal publications on the topic:

Mostly by coincidence, I've started doing scientific work on the origins of (human) ethical behaviour

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?

Similarly, here's some of my papers on emotions, which I also don't think necessarily determine ethical obligation, but many other people differ:

Reminder:  HTML and bibtex for formal citations for the above papers are all available on my publications page.

More from other people:


page author: J J Bryson
photo August 2001, by Laura Kusumoto (shirt by CPSR)