The good, the bad and the robot: a look at the ethical issues related to robots and how they can be integrated into the design process

Organisation: Department of Philosophy, University of Twente

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), nearly 9 million robots are in operation as of 2011 (Statistics taken from the Int’l Federation for Robotics website: This number is based on industrial robots used in the factory and service robots used outside the factory for both professional and personal applications. Robots have entered our homes, hospitals, factories, and military domains and have revolutionized traditional practices. Personal robots already, and will continue to, vacuum floors, cook pancakes, fold clothes, harvest vegetables, and provide service in shopping malls to customers. Robots in the hospital work as assistants to surgeons during surgery or as assistants to nurses by delivering sheets and medications throughout the hospital. Robots are also used for search and rescue missions or as assistants to militants on the battle field. The robot revolution faces many in favor and many against the design and development of robots. On the one hand, those in favor claim that robots hold the promise to assist humans in mundane or dangerous tasks, or when resources and personnel are lacking. On the other hand, those against the use of robots claim that they will displace workers, threaten cultural values and transform cultural traditions for the worse. This contrast between ‘the good and the bad’ as it relates to robots poses an ethical dilemma; will the negative consequences of using robots outweigh the positive? This question forces ethicists and society at large to question whether or not it is possible to find the limits within which robots should be designed and developed.

In this talk I will review the core principles of robot ethics and will explore a proposed approach for incorporating ethics into the design process of robots. Robot ethics addresses robots according to three dimensions: the ethics of building and designing robots, the ethics of how we treat robots and the ethics of the robots as ethical agents (Asaro, 2006). The proposed methodology is based on the approach known as Value-Sensitive Design (Friedman et al, 2006) and demands that robot ethicists work alongside robot designers to encourage reflection of the practices into which robots are stepping and the roles and responsibilities being delegated to robots (van Wynsberghe 2012, 2013). With this in mind, it is possible to design robots that promote and uphold cultural values while working as assistants to humans.


Aimee van Wynsberghe (PhD, MA) is currently working as Ethics Adviser for CTIT (Center for Telematics and Information Technology) at the University of Twente. In her role, she provides ethical education on a one-on-one basis as well as group lectures for a multidisciplinary technical institute at the University of Twente. Her research aims at the inclusion of ethical analysis throughout the design and development of a range of ICT technologies including but not limited to robots.

Aimee is engaged in interdisciplinary work on a day-to-day basis and has written award winning joint articles with computer scientists to show how ethics can be incorporated into design processes. She has attended the prestigious and world renowned Dagstuhl Computer Science Seminars on Ethics in Data Sharing. Her PhD dissertation entitled ‘Designing Robots with Care’ was nominated for the Georges Giralt Best PhD thesis in Robotics in Europe. Aimee has published 11 journal articles and has been cited 123 times since 2006.

References Asaro, P. (2006). What should we want from a robot ethic? International Review of Information Ethics, 6, 8-16. Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., & Borning, A. (2006). Human Values, Ethics, and Design. In P. Zhang, & D. Galletta (Eds.), Human-Computer Interaction and Management Information Systems: Foundations (pp. 348-372). M.E. Sharpe. van Wynsberghe, A. (2012). Designing Robots for Care: Care Centered Value-Sensitive Design. Journal of Science and Engineering Ethics, 4. Van Wynsberghe, A. (2013) A Method for Integrating Ethics into the Design of robots. Industrial Robot 40(5)