Science

The ethical implications of robot torture

 

At this year’s South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Texas, the BBC’s Richard Fisher held a talk called ‘Would You Torture a Robot?’. In his talk, Fisher referenced research that found people have difficulty inflicting torture on robots, viewing them as fellow beings deserving of protection.

Robot ethicist Dr Kate Darling carried out a workshop at MIT in which she gave participants a Pleo dinosaur – a robotic children’s toy – to play with. She then gave the participants weapons and told them to harm and dismember the Pleos. The horrified participants refused until Darling agreed to spare the other dinosaurs if just one was destroyed.

An earlier experiment by another MIT academic measured how children reacted to holding a hamster, a Furby and a Barbie doll upside down. The children could not stand to place the hamster in discomfort but understood that the action had no impact on the Barbie doll. While they were willing to hold the Furby upside down at first, its programmed response of “me scared” prompted them put it out of its misery.

These findings have striking implications. The topic of artificial intelligence has become a hot-button topic of late with such prominent individuals as Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak and Professor Stephen Hawking all publicly expressing concerns over the subject. Signs that people already take social cues from the programmed behaviour of robots perhaps serve as justification for these concerns.

Even stronger bonds between humans and machines can be observed in soldiers and their bomb disposal robots. A study by Julie Carpenter found that when these robots were destroyed, the military personnel who used them experienced the range of emotions usually associated with grief.

A more pressing relevance might be found in the ever-controversial field of animal rights and testing on animals. Darling’s work poses the question of whether it is ethical to torture robots, yet the ethics behind the torture of animals in the name of science are still a contentious issue. If robots with no real feelings or emotions invoke instinctive compassion in people, we must surely pose the question of why animals should be subjected to brutal experimentation when we know that they can feel pain.

The most recent estimates indicate that up to 154 million vertebrates are experimented on worldwide each year, though the majority of counties do not report official statistics. The UK is expected to be in the top 10 countries in the world for this kind of testing. Meanwhile, opposition to animal testing in the UK reportedly increases each year, with 41 per cent of British people viewing animal testing as ‘morally wrong’ in 2014.

The with robots arguably comes down to the fact that they are commonly made intentionally either to look or to function like human beings, prompting emotional responses that would ordinarily be invoked only by other humans. Animals, while having the biological similarities with humans that make them so useful to scientists, look and act differently to us. This perhaps means they lack the behavioural cues to invoke the same empathy that has been observed in the experiments with robots.

With the ever-increasing pace of development in robotics, there is no telling where human interaction with robots might lead and what further implications it might have. Although viewed as potentially dangerous by some and as extremely exciting by others, the world of robotics is certainly interesting and thought-provoking, with the findings of these robot torture experiments representing yet another consideration in a range of on-going debates.

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