Robophilosophy 2018

Exploring ethical responsibility through democratic participation and expert panel discussion

REELER presented a workshop at the 2018 Robophilosophy conference February 15, in Vienna.

This workshop focused on (i) insights obtained from actual cases of robot design and implementation, (ii) how roboticists account for ethical aspects during design and implementation of robots (and whether they should), (iii) instruments to investigate this topic (e.g. anthropological field study) and obtain feedback on ethical concerns from the general audience (e.g. minipublics), and (iv) the sustainability of mass-scale implementation of robots in our economy. Moreover, the workshop was a testbed for using the Mentimeter application to involve the audience and obtain their feedback on certain claims.

In an introduction to REELER, Cathrine Hasse emphasized the research focus on affected stakeholders, using anthropological methods such as field studies, but also innovative instruments such as the (deliberative) minipublic, with the intention to provide a voice to citizens and bring them into the design process. Drawing on fieldwork in Portugal, Cathrine explained that robots (i) transform work as we know it (changing responsibilities, professional pride, in/exclusion), and (ii) affect the (perception of the) environment. The audience showed great interest in the Mini-Public. More engagement and public debate could be useful to both roboticists and policy makers, in correcting popular imaginaries. REELER will host Mini-Public II in November in Aarhus, Denmark.


The workshop included the following presentations with feedback from the audience using Mentimeter. The feedback was used to stimulate discussion in the final part of the workshop.

Niels Christian Mossfeldt Nickelsen presented his field study of a feeding assistive robot (FAR) in a care institute. He explained that the acquisition of these FAR units revealed the ambitions of the policy makers and care providers, but that most of these were not realized. During his presentation he discussed the flaws in design and implementation that might be improved by ethnographic research. While the assistive robot would restore some degree of autonomy for the patients, the quality of the implementation heavily relies on commitment of care givers to "tailor" the environment and "tinker" the technology to the user and circumstances. Niels Christian underlined the importance of an STS approach because –as the FAR case further exemplified- technologies tend to be developed in the designer's perspective of the world and not in that of the (targeted or actual) users.

After the break, Karolina Zawieska provided an overview of the ethics in the design strategy of an education robot. An opening observation is that designers in practice may be inclined to ignore ethical aspects in their choices. In the case she studied it became clear that ethics not only reflect in design choices made, but also in stances toward relationships with stakeholders (which Karolina aptly phrased "closing the gap"). She explained how the designers in her case learned from users in explicit ways through formal design settings, but also in informal ways through unstructured use in implementation. 

Rather than providing results of a field study and a bottom-up perspective, Ben Vermeulen provided a top-down perspective on whether development and implementation of robotics is actually economically (and ethically) desirable. When it comes to employment rates, income equality, and quality of work, the popular media, academic literature, and consulting reports sketch a relatively dark scenario. Ben started with an overview of patent analysis showing a shifting imbalance in robot sectors. Labor (forecast) statistics suggest technology-driven growth in some occupations in some sectors (e.g. software engineers in tech services) and a decline in others (e.g. assemblers in manufacturing). The "applying sectors" see vanishing occupations/ decrease in employment, while the developing and supplying sectors largely see an increase. Ben concluded with an analysis of policy measures to direct the effects of robotics and AI, arguing that such measures might curb the 'precariatization' of labor without consideration for the 'existential stress' pitched by Guy Standing.

Mentimeter Feedback

In response to Mentimeter scores, the following comments from the audience were registered:

  • There may be institutional unwillingness or inability to help retraining, particularly in the USA.
  • The recent McKinsey report showed that actual assessments revealed that even more jobs may be automatable (including possibly writing research papers).
  • There is acceleration in unemployment whenever AI start writing software and start developing robots, which would call for a universal basic income (added by another workshop participant).
  • It is not certain that creative or leisure work would be as "sensible" or "recognized" as the traditional work being lost to automation.

The workshop organizers addressed the audience concerns, engaging in philosophical and academic discussions of future trends in robotics and work.