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Integrating robot ethics and machine morality: the study and design of moral competence in robots

Abstract

Robot ethics encompasses ethical questions about how humans should design, deploy, and treat robots; machine morality encompasses questions about what moral capacities a robot should have and how these capacities could be computationally implemented. Publications on both of these topics have doubled twice in the past 10 years but have often remained separate from one another. In an attempt to better integrate the two, I offer a framework for what a morally competent robot would look like (normally considered machine morality) and discuss a number of ethical questions about the design, use, and treatment of such moral robots in society (normally considered robot ethics). Instead of searching for a fixed set of criteria of a robot’s moral competence I identify the multiple elements that make up human moral competence and probe the possibility of designing robots that have one or more of these human elements, which include: moral vocabulary; a system of norms; moral cognition and affect; moral decision making and action; moral communication. Juxtaposing empirical research, philosophical debates, and computational challenges, this article adopts an optimistic perspective: if robotic design truly commits to building morally competent robots, then those robots could be trustworthy and productive partners, caretakers, educators, and members of the human community. Moral competence does not resolve all ethical concerns over robots in society, but it may be a prerequisite to resolve at least some of them.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Numbers are derived from an EBSCO database search using “robot* and ethic*” as subject search terms and restricting to contributions in journals and books.

  2. This volume appeared as part of MIT Press’s series on “Intelligent robotics and autonomous agents.” Notably, ethics was addressed as the 19th topic in the series, 15 years after the series commenced.

  3. Strictly speaking, this requirement holds only for truthful explanations, which I hope will be the default for social robots.

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Acknowledgments

This project was partially supported by a grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), No. N00014-13-1-0269. The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ONR. The ideas on moral competence featured in this article have been developed jointly with Matthias Scheutz, Tufts University.

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Malle, B.F. Integrating robot ethics and machine morality: the study and design of moral competence in robots. Ethics Inf Technol 18, 243–256 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-015-9367-8

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Keywords

  • Social cognition
  • Moral cognition
  • Human-robot interaction
  • Moral psychology
  • Social robotics