Do we demand higher moral standards of robots than we do of ourselves?

What will a hospital nurse robot do if a patient refuses to take the necessary medication? Will it comply with the client’s wish or force-feed the pills to the patient? Do robots and humans decide differently? Intelligent machines are increasingly making independent choices, but we have thought little about the morals we want them to have.

Machines are increasingly making decisions about human life and welfare. Military and industrial robots as well as self-driving cars are already encountering situations that demand moral decisions.

Can we transfer human consciousness to a machine? How would people react to a robot with feelings and experiences?

Cognitive scientist Michael Laakasuo and his Moralities of Intelligent Machines project are Helsinki Challenge finalists, and as the scientific competition heats up, he keeps coming up with new potential research questions. How will caretaking machines resolve conflict situations? What kind of artificial intelligence will the pharmaceutical industry employ? Will machines satisfy our sexual needs in the future?

As the project progresses, the team members have become increasingly aware that intelligent machines, thought to belong to the realm of science fiction, are already among us.

We need a new discipline

According to Laakasuo, any creation of nature can be replaced by robots or replicated through computation. However, our understanding of robot morality is currently guesswork.

“What kinds of moral decisions would we like robots to make?” asks Laakasuo.

According to him, not even this can be studied yet. This is why his team wants to create a new discipline, the moral psychology of robotics. We must first understand what the decisions of robots should be like before we can generate sustainable conditions for information management – and preferably before the robots make the decisions for us.

In the human world, appearance undeniably impacts communication. Laakasuo is interested in researching whether a robot’s appearance would make a difference when it makes a mistake. Would we judge an ugly robot more harshly than a beautiful one?

Benefit from publicity

The ideas of the Moralities of Intelligent Machines team have gained a great deal of publicity through Helsinki Challenge, and interest in them has come from as far as the United States. In Finland, a documentary about the project is currently in production for broadcast on national television.

Project partners include the AIRO Island robotics project and game company Mindfield Games, and Laakasuo estimates that the other benefits he has personally received through the publicity are equivalent to a one-year research grant or more. Laakasuo also received his doctorate during the competition. 

It is clear that for the robotics team, the goal of the Helsinki Challenge to promote socially visible research that will spark debate has been reached successfully.

In addition to Laakasuo, the team includes Mikko Salmela, Markus Jokela and Marianna Drosinou from the University of Helsinki as well as Jussi Palomäki from Newcastle and Nils Köbis from Amsterdam.

Pitch video for the project (the introduction is in Finnish, but the pitch itself in English)

Helsinki Challenge