Monday, 19 May 2014

Ethical robots would be good for business

It’s easy to chuckle at reports that the US Navy is funding research into creating ethical robots. No doubt the first response among many movie fans will be to mimic Arnold Schwarzenneger at the climax of ‘Terminator 2’ – “I know now why you cry, but it’s something I can never do.”

The fact that the military is taking a lead prompts ideas about how a machine driven by artificial intelligence could behave in warfare, or any scenarios in which they would take decisions that could mean life or death to a human. But there’s also a lot of potential for everyday business in the idea of an ethical robot.

Despite robotics having an established place in manufacturing, we’re still a long way from robots – something that looks and behaves more human – making much of an impact in the workplace. But there are plenty of convincing prototypes out there and it isn’t difficult to envisage their descendants carrying out human functions in the next 10 or 20 years.

It’s scary to some, but enticing to businesses that think about the long term effect on labour costs. Installing robots to interact with humans is a natural progression from using voice recognition systems in contact centres or self-service check-outs in supermarkets. Some could also make a case for robots removing the scope for human error, although it would be interesting to see how that would stand up to the first robot malfunction.

No doubt it will kick off new arguments about technology replacing people at work, and agonising over how to resolve that tension while hanging on to the idea of capitalism working for the common good. But plenty of businesses will be ready to go for it, and the more forward looking are going to want their robots to have some ethical capability.

It’s a step towards resolving the problem that faces businesses using those voice recognition systems and self-service check-outs – they annoy the hell out of customers. People resent dealing with machines rather than other people, and usually put up with it because it’s too inconvenient to go elsewhere. Imagine how that can intensify when they’re faced with a robot that tells them their train is late, or takes a customer complaint, or decides they shouldn’t be allowed on a flight. You’re looking at serious anger.

This is where the better staff prove their worth to an employer, in showing they empathise with the other person and doing what they can to alleviate a problem, and even deciding when there’s a decent case to bend the rules. And this usually comes back to a sense of ethics – when it’s right to do what would usually be wrong. It’s the show of empathy and evidence that they are being treated as people that can keep customers on board.

So if a robot can draw on an ethical capability, and convey some sense of empathy with the human, it can take the sting out of any tension and resentment that builds up. You might get a customer who, while not absolutely happy, isn’t going to walk away. It’s not perfect from the customer’s point of view, but if it’s good enough to keep them walking away it will good enough for many businesses.

It’s conceivable that within 20 years some businesses will be marketing their services on the basis that their robots have been created with an ethical capability that makes them more responsive to a customer’s circumstances. It may not convince everyone, but they can sell it as being better than leaving decisions to a machine that doesn’t know when to bend the rules. Ethical robots could give a business an edge in its market.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

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