Robot Ethics: Where Values And Engineering Meet

Updated August 12, 2022 | Originally published 09/09/2021

First Law
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

--Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics


Robot ethics is a relatively new subdomain of robotics focused on ethical aspects of automation design and deployment.

While its origin can arguably be traced back to Isaac Asimov’s speculative Three Laws of Robotics (above), first published in the 1942 short story ‘Runaround,’ it is only over the past twenty years --spurred by the work of academic researchers, and later by trade organizations and standardization bodies—that the field has evolved to become an important part of the robotics conversation.

For example, The European Union funded RoboLaw project drew on contributions from experts in robot ethics in its development of extensive guidelines for European policymakers and lawmakers governing automation and AI deployments. Meanwhile, the IEEE is working on standards designed to ensure that automation and AI conforms with the principles of ethically-guided design and technology functions for the betterment of society.

Robot ethics combines insights from experts in robotics, AI, computer science, and engineering with insights from experts in philosophy, law, psychology and sociology, in an attempt to ensure that automation designs and deployments do not create ethical hazards for individuals and society. For example, considering the growing impact of industrial automation on society, robot ethics experts ask questions such as ‘Should industrial robots be taxed?’ ‘Does the rise of automation change the debate around proposals for a Universal Basic Income?’ and ‘How can we ensure that automation is designed and deployed with ethical considerations in mind?’

The domain of industrial robots is also included in the growing conversation around robot ethics. The rise of collaborative robots, which enable closer interaction between humans and robots than ever before on factory and warehouse floors, has given extra impetus to the topic.

NOTE: Safety has always been a core principle of industrial robot design, and industrial robots must comply with global and regional standards and laws governing safe design and deployment. Robot ethics builds on this established knowledge to explore the broader ethical considerations involved, such as worker well-being.

Let’s take a look at some resources you can use to begin exploring this vast and interesting robotics subdomain at the intersection of human values and engineering.

  1. The British Standards Institute has developed a set of standards for the ethical design of robots and robotic devices. The BS 8611 ‘Ethics design and application robots’ document provides guidelines for the identification of potential ethical harm, alongside guidelines for safe design, ethical protective measures. It also builds on existing safety requirements for industrial, personal care, and medical robots. 
  2. The IEEE’s Standards Association runs the ‘Global Initiative on the Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems’ which is a great starting point for learning about ethical issues surrounding both robotics and artificial intelligence.

    The IEEE is currently developing its P7000 series of standards projects, which it describes as a “unique addition” to its collection of over 1,900 global IEEE standards and projects.” That’s certainly true: Traditionally, standards have focused on technology interoperability, functionality, safety, and trade facilitation. In contrast, the IEEE P7000 series is designed to address “specific issues at the intersection of technological and ethical considerations.”
  3. Founded in 2012, the Open Roboethics Institute is a non-profit thinktank dedicated to exploring ethical and social implications of robotics and AI.
  4. Ethical Issues in Human-Robot Interaction  – A presentation by Kate Darling, MIT Media Lab
  5. Can we apply human ethics to robots? (Via Interesting Engineering)

Further resources:

Robot Ethics: The Social and Ethical Implications of Robotics, MIT Press

The Cobot Experience: AJung Moon & Resolving Human-Cobot Resource Conflicts, Robotiq blog

How to Judge A ‘Bot, The Economist

British Standards Institute

Runa+round, Isaac Asimov