Honda's Asimo robot at the 2014 New York International Auto Show in New York. Photo: Getty Images
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We may never teach robots about love, but what about ethics?

Do androids dream of electric Kant?

A third of Britons fear the rise of the robots, according to a poll conducted for the launch of new science fiction drama Almost Human. So, given that more than a quarter of participants believe that robots will in future be capable of feeling human emotion, should we be trying to teach them to behave ethically?

Start talking about robots with ethics, and most science fiction buffs' minds turn to SF writer Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. According to these rules, a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow one to come to harm; it must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Many of Asimov's stories depend for their plot on how robots apply these laws in practice, resulting in everything from a human-robot love affair to the total subjugation of humanity. How does a robot know what constitutes a threat to itself? And, more importantly, how does it know what constitutes harm to a human?

With robots increasingly working alongside human beings, such questions are no longer the preserve of science fiction alone. In Japan in particular, robots are being trialled (under supervision) as companions for the elderly, as medical porters and even as primary school teachers - all functions where ethical behaviour is crucial.

But as AJung Moon of the University of British Columbia, points out, "It's really hard to create a robot that would have the same sense of moral agency as a human being. Part of the reason is that people can't even agree on what is the right thing to do. What would be the benchmark?"

Her latest research, led by colleague Ergun Calisgan, takes a pragmatic approach to the problem by examining a robot tasked with delivering a package in a building with only one small lift. How should it act? Should it push ahead of a waiting human? What if its task is urgent? What if the person waiting is in a wheelchair?

"We wanted to get away from figuring out what is the right thing to do, but figure out a practical solution to getting a robot to behave in a way that people think is the right thing to do," says Moon. Interviews with human participants showed that when the robot's errand wasn't urgent, people felt that it should give precedence to the human being, saying: "Go ahead. I will ride the next one."

When the mail was urgent, there was less consensus. The least-popular options were for the robot to just stand there - probably looking a bit sinister - or to order people out of the way. The most popular, especially when the waiting person was in a wheelchair, was for the robot to explain that it was on an urgent mission and to ask if the human was in a hurry. With all this information plugged into a learning algorithm, the robot can now work out the most appropriate behaviour and avoid getting into a fight.

Nowhere is the problem of machine ethics more pressing than in the field of warfare. Currently, robots are used widely to gather data for surveillance and for patrols. But research into fully autonomous 'killer robots' is already underway in the US, China, Russia, Israel and the UK, and several semi-autonomous weapons already exist.

Ironically, it should in some ways be easier to create robots that can behave ethically on the battlefield than to build considerate care workers. While compassion can be hard to pin down, the ethical rules for battle are defined through international agreements - perfect for a robot, you might think.

Indeed, professor Ronald Craig Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology has proposed an "ethical adaptor", designed give a military robot what he describes as a sense of guilt. It racks up, according to a pre-determined formula, as the robot perceives after an event that it has violated the rules of engagement - perhaps by killing a civilian in error - or if it is criticised by its own side. Once its guilt reaches a certain pre-determined level, the robot is denied permission to fire.

But, says professor Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield, using such terms is highly misleading. "Using the word 'guilt' is what I call a Trojan horse," he says. "When I say a person feels guilty, it opens up a whole world of ideas, but when you use that word as a roboticist it means something very different."

In any case, as we've seen, it takes a great deal of work just to prime a robot to rescue people from falling down holes. In the case of battlefield robots, the practical issues are immense.

"It involves very, very difficult issues in sensing technology - being able to recognise combatants reliably, remembering that not every person carrying a gun is a combatant, remembering that there might be neutral parties on the battlefield," professor Rob Sparrow of Monash University pointed out in a recent debate of the TechDebate on Emerging Technologies series. "It involves recognising civilians carrying golf clubs so that it might look as if they are carrying a weapon. The complexity of the task is really unimaginably high."

Professor Alan Winfield of the University of the West of England Bristol is working on a robot that. in one situation at least, abides by Asimov's full First Law. "This is certainly not Kantian ethics, or even Aristotelian ethics, but about a robot being able to make a decision to override its normal safety rules to save a human," he says.

In his tests, a robot uses its sensors to detect that a "human being" is moving towards a "hole in the ground" (actually, another robot and a designated area of floor).

"What the robot then does is something it would not normally do," he says. "It would normally be designed to avoid collisions with humans; but on this occasion the robot would decide that a gentle collision with this particular human is more acceptable than letting the person fall into the hole."

It's a simple enough scenario - but even here, there's an enormous amount of work involved. The robot needs to have internal models of both itself and its environment, and to be capable of working out the effects of its own and others' actions.

"When you can model the consequences of actions, you can select actions that will minimise the harmful consequences. But it all needs to happen in real time," says Professor Winfield.

"And even a robot with harm reduction ethics can face an ethical dilemma – say, when there are two humans about to fall into a hole and only one robot."

Without exception, roboticists say science fiction has done them no favours, making us believe robots are far more capable than they actually are. Our natural anthropomorphisation compounds this: one US colonel called off tests of a bomb-disposal robot, for example, because he believed blowing its legs off was "inhumane". It's all too easy to attribute thoughts and feelings to machines that possess nothing of the sort.

"I can't see ethical robots happening in my lifetime," says Professor Sharkey. "There might be some sort of big breakthough, I suppose, but otherwise I don't expect to ever see any great advance towards robots as moral agents doing ethical things."

Photo: Getty
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Are cats solid or liquid? 13 of the best winners of the Ig Nobel prize

This satirical awards ceremony has celebrated unusual contributions to science for 27 years. 

Every year, the Ig Nobel Prize Committee hands out ten awards. A parody of the Nobel Prize, it recognises some of the most whimsical contributions to science. 

Categories include psychology, fluid dynamics and chemical engineering, much like the real Nobel Prizes, but change year to year. Its name is a pun on the word ignoble.

Studies that won prizes this year include a paper which discovered which part of the brain creates repulsion to cheese, a report on the effects of human blood in the diet of hairy-legged vampire bats, and research explaining why old men have big ears (gravity). The winners are just the latest in 27 years of the award. Here are 13 of the most head-scratching and unique winners:

1. Original conspiracy theories

Erich Von Daniken won the Literature Prize in 1991, the first year of the Ig Nobel awards, for his book Chariots of the Godswhich suggested human life takes its origins from ancient aliens that came to earth. Originally published in 1968, the book imagines that many ancient civilisations demonstrated higher scientific abilities than was possible given the limitations of their time, so aliens must have come to Earth and transmitted the knowledge to make human progress possible. 

2. The Antichrist from the East

Robert Faid, a mathematician, invested a huge amount of time in calculating the exact odds of whether Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, is the Antichrist. (The exact odds are 710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1, if you’re curious).

3. Refined pigeons 

Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto and Masumi Wakita successfully trained several pigeons to discriminate between Picasso’s paintings and Monet’s paintings, a skill that some humans might still be struggling with. 

4. Lovesick

Four scientists at the University of Pisa discovered that the biochemical basis of romantic love might not be all that different from the biochemical basis of neuroticism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as they observed the multiple ways that platelet serotonin was transported around various sections of the brain. 

5. Hell is closer than we think 

Dr. Jack Van Impe and Rexella Van Impe carried out research which demonstrated that one of the universe’s great mysteries, black holes, fulfil the theological and technical requirements to be the location of hell itself.

6. Feathery feelings 

Stefano Ghirlanda, Liselotte Jansson, and Magnus Enquist of Stockholm University demonstrated that our flightless friends may be no different to us – in that chickens prefer beautiful humans. Chickens were more likely to react to pictures of faces that were deemed more conventionally attractive.

7. Creative (non) fiction

This went to a whole group of people in Nigeria, the internet entrepreneurs who used e-mail to introduce many innocent fraud victims around the world to “a cast of rich characters – General Sani Abacha, Barriste Jon A Mbeki Esq”, who find themselves in need of a loan and rely on the generosity of strangers to access their own immense fortunes. 

8. Say Cheese 

Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commenwealth Scientific and Research Organisation did all the legwork and found the exact number of photographs that you have to take in order to ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed. 

9. A girl's best friends 

Three scientists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México were able to create a girl’s best friend, diamonds, from her other best friend, tequila. They did this by heating tequila at very high temperatures to turn it into a gas. They then heated the gas further to break it into solid crystals that had the same composition as pure diamonds. 

10. Swearing is good for you 

Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University finally proved that there’s a scientific basis for the belief that swearing relieves pain. It may have something to do with how swearing can nullify the typical fight-or-flight response to pain, among other reasons.

11. Beer goggles

Five scientists, Laurent Begue, Brad Bushman, Oulman Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra and Medhi Ourabah, confirmed that “beauty is in the eye of the beer holder” ie that if you’re drunk, you’re more likely to think you’re attractive.

12. More than a pet rock 

Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes and Shelagh Fergon were able to use a sales and marketing perspective to ascertain the potential personalities of various kinds of rocks, by interviewing focus groups who said what they believed the rocks could be like. Some rocks (particularly the more fetching ones) were described as "classy, feminine", while others were seen more as "a hippy, someone who believes in star signs and whatnot". 

13. The internet's favorite animal 

Marc-Antoine Fardin sought to answer the age old question: cats – liquid or solid? Apparently, they're both. (Fardin admits there’s much more research to be done). 

A full list of every year's winners can be found here