What do we need social robots for?

A robot that serves guests in a restaurant never forgets an order, never gets impatient and never expects a tip. If such robotic waiters can also create a good atmosphere with a few jokes, isn’t it inevitable or even desirable that they gradually displace their human colleagues?

No, says Johanna Seibt, and contradicts this conclusion. In her opening speech International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems (AAMAS) the professor of philosophy at the University of Århus formulated the demand that social robots should observe the maxim of non-replacement: robots should only carry out desirable activities that humans are not capable of.

This, in turn, is a compelling consequence of the requirement to base the development of technology on values. Instead of asking how the automation potential of current professions can be exploited, researchers and developers should be guided by the question of whether there are high-level moral values ​​that cannot be realized through human interaction but can be realized through human-robot interaction.

Seibt referred to the dilemma formulated by David Collingridge in 1980 and named after him, according to which the social consequences of a technology are only fully understood when the development can no longer be reversed. Picking up a formulation by the US researcher Sherry Turkle, according to which we are in the “robotics moment of cultural history”, she lamented the lack of orientation in research.

As social robots—that is, robots capable of interacting with their peers, humans, and the environment—populate the physical and symbolic space of human interaction, it is unclear why they are being developed at all. Social robots are not tools or things, but social actors, Seibt stated, and asked: “What could be the purpose of introducing something into our lives that simulates one’s own personality?”

She referred to the approach of Integrative Social Robotics to responsible and culturally sustainable development of social robots. Currently, 30 researchers from nine countries, representing twelve different disciplines, are involved in this project. It aims to find the right goals for social robotics. Although the concepts developed so far are of course still preliminary, at the end of her presentation Seibt indicated a direction in which things could go: “How can robots be used to promote cooperation and social justice and to strengthen our emotional and rational autonomy? “


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