Can robots be blamed for killing civilians?

April 24th, 2012 - 4:55 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, April 24 (IANS) If a robot develops a programming glitch that causes it to kill civilians, do we blame the robot, or the humans who created and deployed it?

Such ethical questions are now emerging as advanced militaries develop autonomous robotic warriors to replace humans on the battlefield.

Some argue that robots do not have free will and therefore cannot be held morally accountable for their actions.

But psychologists at the University of Washington (UW) are finding that people don’t have such a clear-cut view of humanoid robots.

“We’re moving toward a world where robots will be capable of harming humans,” said Peter Kahn, a UW associate professor of psychology who led the study. The paper was recently published in the proceedings of the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

“With this study, we’re asking whether a robotic entity is conceptualized as just a tool, or as some form of a technological being that can be held responsible for its actions,” said Kahn, according to a UW statement.

Kahn and his team had 40 undergraduate students play a scavenger hunt with a humanlike robot, Robovie. The robot appeared autonomous, but it was remotely controlled by a researcher concealed in another room.

After a bit of small talk with the robot, each participant had two minutes to locate objects from a list of items in the room. They all found the minimum, seven, to claim the $20 prize.

But when their time was up, Robovie claimed they had found only five objects. Then came the crux of the experiment: participants’ reactions to the robot’s miscount.

“Most argued with Robovie,” said co-author Heather Gary, doctoral student in developmental psychology at Washington. “Some accused Robovie of lying or cheating.”

When interviewed, 65 percent of participants said Robovie was to blame - at least to a certain degree - for wrongly scoring the scavenger hunt and unfairly denying the participants the $20 prize.

This suggests that as robots gain capabilities in language and social interactions, “it is likely that many people will hold a humanoid robot as partially accountable for a harm that it causes,” the researchers wrote.

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