Will robots make us better persons?

How will our society change as artificial intelligence and robotics develop? To what kind of new humanity will robotics liberate us? Will the added value brought by robots be available for the well-to-do only? We must start discussing ethics of new technology before this technology becomes an integral part of our everyday lives. The essential thing is to keep posing questions, even if there were no answers to be found right away.

Often it is even more essential to keep posing questions than finding answers to them. This is true at least when faced with ethical questions. Ethical questions related to the use and instilling of technology require asking questions, consideration and debate from versatile perspectives and at different levels. This is particularly important, when we are in the process of pushing people whose voice is not always very clearly heard in our society to use technology: those living in the margins of our society. They need us others, who might be able to give them a voice through our own deliberations.

Very seldom ethical consideration of matters reaches a fruitful level if they are discussed between own team members or colleagues only; Establishing a wider perspective requires views from various angles and stakeholders.

Ethical technology and many-voiced approach

I ran a workshop that VTT organised in collaboration with RoboBisnes operators, or the North Karelia Municipal Education and Training Consortium and Karelia University of Applied Sciences. With a group of 40 people, we spent a whole afternoon delving deep into the opportunities offered and the concerns raised by robotics and artificial intelligence. We sought perspectives, for example, from the everyday lives of older people and the mentally disabled.

Ari Tarkiainen, Project Manager at Karelia University of Applied Sciences, made an important observation at the session: “In a way, ethics is kind of an inherent part of new technology, since new applications and opportunities produce a lot of situations of which we have no previous experience. It is also descriptive of the current situation that such new situations have not been taken into account in legislation and no practices have been established for managing them. Therefore, ethical questions should be strongly highlighted all the time. VTT has been acting as a key expert and developer in this collaboration between ethics and technology”.

Technology is not black and white

Even though universal ethical values guide us to consider what is good and bad, or right and wrong, technology is never black and white. When we listen to each other – and also really hear what is being said – the border between black and white begins to waver and we begin to see bright colours and different shades of grey. In the hum of voices (and North Karelians are known for being eager to talk!), the values shared by most of us find a fairly comprehensible form within the Finnish framework.

After a while, that clarity fades away, when we keep on examining these values from a multicultural perspective:

  • Which values can take us forward?
  • What creates trust in society?
  • What kind of fringe areas does digitisation create, and who live in these fringes?
  • To what kind of new humanity would technology going beyond our thinking capacity liberate us?
  • Why does technology sometimes raise issues of insecurity and vulnerability regardless of the fact that it also opens up new enchanting paths in our everyday lives.
  • What is the ethical thread that will last until the end?

When discussing these questions, and going forwards and backwards, we came up with some positive visions of robotics. “Robots enable easy-to-use user interfaces and increase digital inclusion. Maybe, with the help of ugly robots, we also learn to accept the different appearances of people. It is great that robots do not know how to have tantrums! I could quite easily trust them with all cleaning duties.” Some female participants were also of the opinion that, luckily, robots are quite advanced, unlike human males, which are still being developed in the right direction in many households. Tears were running down people’s cheeks with laughter, and there was room for all kinds of opinions at the session venue, near the Joensuu market place.

Talking and laughing together, sharing our common experiences, does good to us people. That is something a robot is unlikely to be capable of any time soon. But robots can liberate us of from many dull tasks to having the kind of ‘quality time’ together as described above.

We will organise more similar workshops in the future. Consideration of the borders and framework conditions of humanity is important, and right now, in the middle of major changes, it is particularly important.

Read more at www.vttresearch.com/services/digital-society


Jaana Leikas
Principal Scientist, VTT
Cell: +358 407 500 211

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