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."

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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.