Psychology professor Bertram Malle researches “social cognition,” a
blend of psychology and neuroscience that examines how people behave in
social situations. He is part of a team of researchers attempting to
train robots to make moral decisions, arguing that as robots take over
more human tasks, they need at least some “moral competence.”
BAM In what situations are robots faced with moral decisions?
MALLE Even just partly
autonomous robots will quickly get into situations that require moral
considerations. For example, which faintly crying voice from the
earthquake rubble should the rescue robot follow: the child’s or the
older adult’s? What should a medical robot do when a cancer patient
begs for more morphine but the supervisory doctor is not reachable to
approve the request? Should a self-driving car prevent its owner from
taking over manual driving when the owner is drunk but needs to get his
seizuring child to the hospital?
BAM How do you even go about a project like this?
MALLE We are beginning to
formalize a cognitive theory of blame amenable to computational
implementation. And recently we have started to take this cognitive
theory of blame into the social domain, asking when, how, and for what
purposes people express moral criticism—blaming your friend for
stealing a shirt from the department store, for example.
BAM Human morality reduced to a single algorithm or formula?
MALLE It’s a grave mistake
to think of human moral competence as one thing. It would be just as
grave a mistake to build a single moral module in a robot. Things are
beautifully complex when we deal with the human mind. We should expect
no less of the robot mind.
BAM What would you say to people who might be a bit unnerved by the idea of moral robots?
MALLE Consider the
alternative: A robot that takes care of your ailing mother and has no
idea about basic norms of politeness, respect, autonomy, and has no
capacity to make a difficult decision—such as in my example of
dispensing urgently needed pain medication even though the doctor in
charge is not reachable. “Morality” has long been considered unique to
humans. But if we build robots that interact with humans and that have
increasing decision capacity, impact, and duties of care, there is no
alternative to creating “moral” robots. Keeping robots amoral would
simply be unethical.
Illustration by Timothy Cook.