Can We Agree on What Robots Should be Allowed to Do? An Exercise in Rule Selection for Ethical Care Robots

Dieter Vanderelst, Jurgen Willems

Publication: Scientific journalJournal articlepeer-review

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Future Care Robots (CRs) should be able to balance a patient’s, often conflicting, rights without ongoing supervision. Many of the trade-offs faced by such a robot will require a degree of moral judgment. Some progress has been made on methods to guarantee robots comply with a predefined set of ethical rules. In contrast, methods for selecting these rules are lacking. Approaches departing from existing philosophical frameworks, often do not result in implementable robotic control rules. Machine learning approaches are sensitive to biases in the training data and suffer from opacity. Here, we propose an alternative, empirical, survey-based approach to rule selection. We suggest this approach has several advantages, including transparency and legitimacy. The major challenge for this approach, however, is that a workable solution, or social compromise, has to be found: it must be possible to obtain a consistent and agreed-upon set of rules to govern robotic behavior. In this article, we present an exercise in rule selection for a hypothetical CR to assess the feasibility of our approach. We assume the role of robot developers using a survey to evaluate which robot behavior potential users deem appropriate in a practically relevant setting, i.e., patient non-compliance. We evaluate whether it is possible to find such behaviors through a consensus. Assessing a set of potential robot behaviors, we surveyed the acceptability of robot actions that potentially violate a patient’s autonomy or privacy. Our data support the empirical approach as a promising and cost-effective way to query ethical intuitions, allowing us to select behavior for the hypothetical CR.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1093 - 1102
JournalInternational Journal of Social Robotics
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Austrian Classification of Fields of Science and Technology (ÖFOS)

  • 202035 Robotics
  • 505027 Administrative studies
  • 211903 Science of management
  • 502024 Public economy


  • care robots
  • ethics
  • patients
  • robots
  • rule setting

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