What are the legal rights of a robot? This is one of the many questions MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling contemplates as part of her work in robot ethics.
Robots have been working for decades in manufacturing, but now robots that focus on human interaction are becoming more common. Studies of human-robot interaction show that humans tend to treat them as if they were alive—although they know they are machines. “Our brains may be biologically hardwired to project intent and life onto any movement in our physical space that seems autonomous to us,” says Darling.
Machines are able to trigger empathy when they are designed with movements, language, and facial features that mirror human or animal behavior. This ability can be very helpful in using robots to supplement human interaction and also to interpret or modify human behavior.
“I did a study at the Media Lab where we found that people who have low empathic concern for others will treat a robot differently than people who have high empathic concern, so we can use a robot to measure human empathy,” says Darling. “Not only can we measure or observe people’s behavior with robots, but could we use robots therapeutically to help people manage their behavior?”
Two of the areas where robots are used successfully in human interaction is in healthcare and education. Robots are helping young kids learn languages with great success and robot animals can serve as therapy for patients with dementia. While using robots in education and healthcare could be effective, but it also brings up concerns about privacy and data security, as well as legal and social issues.
What about the treatment of robots? “For robots that are designed in a lifelike way, which we treat like living things, what does it do to us to be cruel towards these things? We don’t know the answer, but it might actually turn us into crueler humans if we get used to certain behaviors with these lifelike robots.”
Darling’s work focuses on researching and influencing technology design and policy direction. Especially in the healthcare and education realm, Darling points out, many robots are being developed for vulnerable populations, which brings concerns for misuse of those consumers as well as the question of when humans can and cannot be replaced.
“Even though robots are awesome as a supplement to human care,” says Darling, “we have to be careful about replacing that care work with robots. The effect of any technology depends on how we use it.”
Darling was recently nominated for the biennial Thinkers50 awards along with six others from MIT. She is co-author of a new book, Creativity without Law: Challenging the Assumptions of Intellectual Property.
Photo: Flavia Schaub.