Socioethical Approaches to Robotics Development



This special section of IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine (RAM) is a collaborative effort with IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (T&S) (the March 2018 issue). This means that members of each Society will gain electronic access to one another’s publications for this issue only. Please take the time to explore international author findings from each of the magazines and compare outcomes. While the RAM special section focuses on socioethical approaches to robotics development, t h e T&S special issue discusses more general robots and social implications. T&S, guest edited by Katina Michael, Diana Bowman, Meg Leta Jones, and Ramona Pringle, takes a broader view of the definition of robots, encapsulating a variety of systems, including anthropomorphized and industrial robots, drones, driverless cars, smart Internet-of-Things hub devices, and software bots.

Focus of the Joint Special

The aim of this joint special was to bring together diversity of thought in robotics from a variety of disciplines, and this has been achieved with specialists from anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and law working alongside mechanical, mechatronic, electrical, computer, and software engineers. The skill set in both specials is impressive in breadth and capacity for interdisciplinarity. These are the kinds of collaborations that need to be encouraged by government grant bodies, technical institutions, and corporations alike. It will not be long before internal review boards and ethics committees demand the role of an ethicist or sociologist in submitted project applications.

Public participation in the robotics development process is also vital but a much harder proposition to achieve before diffusion. At best, perceptions of consumers or employees can be harnessed at the proof of concept or trialability stages, but these are only representative. Unfortunately, the patent process is not inclusive of socioethical dilemmas [1]. A product or process is usually awarded a patent based on its inventiveness, without a pursuant discussion on the possible socioethical implications at the time the patent is filed [2].

The results of the joint special collectively indicate that there is, unsurprisingly, a major interest in the social and ethical dimensions of robotics development and application, but few studies published in the public domain that have incorporated socioethics. Historically, there are even fewer studies that we can point to that link social and ethical issues with intelligent machines [3] or robots, but for the greater part, the link of socioethics is embedded into the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) framework and applied to biologically related innovation (e.g., human genome) [4]. More recently, responsible research and innovation have been applied by researchers in the space of emerging technologies [5] to emphasize corporate social responsibility. And there is a growing number of philosophers who now study ethics and robotics [6].

We seem to be able to theorize on the possibilities through various forms of scenario planning, but very little empirical work to support the possibilities is conducted on prototypes or realworld operational robots. We envisage the domain of socioethics to boom in the coming years as we come to grips with new standards, policies, and laws related to the field of robotics at large. This is to take seriously the understanding that ethics is not devoid of societal context and different markets have relative values that are influenced by culture. Disparate social groups within the same society may also prioritize their actions based on their values in differing ways, and this may lead to conflicting worldviews. How do we innovate mindfully, given that the existence of a robot in a specific process has far-reaching impacts beyond the user? And can we imbue robots with ethics [7]?

Search the IEEE for the term socioethical or derivatives thereof, and you will not find much in terms of published research. In the field of engineering and information and communications technology, one is more likely to come across references to sociotechnical (systems) or socioeconomic (impacts) or sociocultural (implications) or sociolegal (cases) or simply broader ethical issues in the domain of study. Search more specifically for evidence that ethics has been considered in the end-to-end design lifecycle of a new process or product, and you will find even less proof that these practices exist.

This does not mean that socioethical issues are not being adequately addressed in robotics, but we are more preoccupied with the tensions between conception, deployment, first-mover advantage, and feedback loops than embedded ethics from the outset. Whether this has to do with more agile development approaches or trade secrets that won’t relinquish industry practices, this special is a call to raise awareness of the importance of socioethics as an integral part of any problem definition or feasibility study right through to operation and maintenance road maps of emerging technologies. Yet, evident even in the contributions of this special section, engineers of all types are mixed in their attitudes toward the effectiveness of the application of ethical frameworks, with some believing they are relevant at the beginning of a development lifecycle, and others arguing you cannot prejudge ethics. The following brief section introduces how the IEEE Standards Association is contributing to ethical considerations, an initiative led by the chair, Raja Chatila, with hundreds of contributions from all over the world, academicians and industry specialists from large and small boutique companies, and government and nongovernment participation.

Ethical Considerations of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems



The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (A/IS) was launched in April of 2016 to move beyond the paranoia and the uncritical admiration regarding autonomous and intelligent technologies and illustrate that aligning technology development and use with ethical values will help advance innovation while diminishing fear in the process [8].

The goal of the IEEE Global Initiative is to incorporate ethical aspects of human well-being that may not be automatically considered in the current design and manufacture of A/IS technologies and reframe the notion of success so human progress can include the intentional prioritization of individual, community, and societal ethical values. The mission of the IEEE Global Initiative is to ensure that every stakeholder involved in the design and development of A/IS is educated, trained, and empowered to prioritize ethical considerations so that these technologies are advanced for the benefit of humanity.

The IEEE Global Initiative has two primary outputs, the creation and iteration of a body of work known as Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-Being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems [9] and the identification and recommendation of ideas for standards projects focused on prioritizing ethical considerations in A/IS. Currently, there are 11 approved standards working groups in the IEEE P7000 series.

A key distinction we also always make in our work is to point out that ethical considerations in and of themselves are not new for engineers, academics, and programmers. Codes of ethics have guided these professions for decades and provide seminal principles regarding safety and compliance that have provided, and still provide, critical guidance for technology design and production. Our goal is to provide an additional set of principles and standards to help any technologists not used to dealing with the new aspects of how A/IS can affect human agency and emotion. Like any new technology, A/IS simply brings new issues to deal with, and, in the case of systems or products directly interacting with humans, applied ethics or values-driven design are methodologies that help technologists evolve their ethical paradigm to address the algorithmic age.

Overview of Accepted Articles in the Special Section

Three articles were accepted for inclusion in the special section. The first article, by Amigoni and Schiaffonati, presents an ethical framework for experimental technologies with respect to robotics. The article takes the ethical framework proposed by van de Poel for experimental technologies and applies it to the case of robotics. Amigoni and Schiaffonati critically and somewhat controversially argue that explorative experiments can be conducted in robotics given the absence of proper theoretical backgrounds. The authors claim that we can only address ethical issues on the impacts of robots in society through real-world deployments. They utilize two examples in the domain of search and rescue, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge and the Fukushima Nuclear Emergency, to make their case.

The second article, by Villani et al., focuses on industrial robots to simplify work-related operational processes. The article highlights the benefits of measure, adapt, and teach (MATE) robots in care and service roles and provides an excellent discussion on observed socioethical implications. The ELSI framework and roboethics have been integrated more broadly into the development process of MATE robots used in the workplace. The authors state that technical requirements are not solely driven by the use cases but by other design recommendations stemming from the analysis of implications on ethics and social and legal issues related to the use of adaptive human–machine systems (i.e., MATE).

The third article, by Borenstein et al., uses a survey methodology to report on parental perspectives on the overtrust of pediatric health-care robots, specifically exoskeletons. This article is concerned with socioethical issues surrounding postdeployment of robotics in the personal health-care domain. A key finding in the study was that over 62% of respondents indicated they would typically or completely trust their child to handle risky situations with an exoskeleton.

While the guest editors decided to accept only three articles, these are indicative of various perspectives in theoretical or applied foundations (e.g., explorative experiments versus roboethics and ELSI and aspects of trust and risk), in context (e.g., search and rescue with respect to defense and emergency services versus industrial robots versus personal health-care robots), and end users (citizens, employees, patients, and consumers). 


1.  K. Michael, "Can good standards propel unethical technologies?", IEEE Technol. Soc. Mag., vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 6-9, 2016. 

2. What is a patent?, 2017, [online] Available:

3. M. A. Boden, "Social implications of intelligent machines", Proc. 1978 Annu. Conf. (ACM ’78), pp. 746-752, 1978.

4. "The ELSI research program", 2017, [online] Available:

5. N. McBride, B. Stahl, "Developing responsible research and innovation for robotics", Proc. IEEE Int. Symp. Ethics in Science Technology and Engineering, pp. 1-10, 2014.
View Article Full Text: PDF    (220KB)

6. R. Capurro, M. Nagenborg, Ethics and Robotics, Heidelberg, Germany:AKA G.m.b.H., 2009.

7. K. Miller, "Can we program ethics into AI?", IEEE Technol. Soc. Mag., vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 29-30, 2017.

8. "Ethically aligned design version 1 for public discussion", IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems., Dec. 2016, [online] Available:

9. "Ethically aligned design version 2 for public discussion", IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, Dec. 2017, [online] Available:

Keywords: Robots, Autonomous robots, Ethics, Social implications of technology, Bot (Internet)

Citation: Noel Sharkey, Aimee van Wynsberghe, John C. Havens, Katina Michael, IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, Vol: 25, No. 1, March 2018, pp. 26-28, DOI: 10.1109/MRA.2017.2787225.

The State-Society Relationship: Big Data's Big Future - But for Whom

When we ponder on the future, scenario-based planning is one of a number of approaches we can employ to consider the “what-might-be” possibilities. These are plausible scenarios that let us peer into the future, not with certainty of what will eventuate but with a spirit of consideration and preparedness.

Recently, Katina was invited to participate in Australia's Prime Minister & Cabinet series of workshops on the state-society relationship. A number of fundamental questions were posed at the workshops relating to futures. Some of these are highly pertinent to the thought-provoking Special Section guest edited in this issue by the studious Associate Editor Jeremy Pitt, Ada Diaconescu, and David Bollier, addressing matters of the digital society, big data, and social awareness. The questions included:

  1. What can governments use crowdsourcing for?
  2. How does government operate in a networked environment?
  3. Can Big Data help government solve problems?
  4. How will government respond to the empowered individual?
  5. How can governments effectively manage cities to meet the challenges of urbanization?
  6. How will the government communicate with its citizens given instant communications?

To some degree answering one of these questions provides insights into answers for others. For the purposes of this editorial, we'd rather ask:

  1. What can citizens use crowdsourcing for?
  2. How can companies effectively manage cities to meet the challenges of urbanization?

It should come as no surprise that in the last 12 months, T&S Magazine has published articles on a variety of themes relevant to the above-mentioned questions, relating to smart grids, smart homes, smart meters, energy monitoring, public technical means, public sector information, open government, big data, geosocial intelligence, the veillances (data-, sous- and uber-), future government, crowdsourcing, collective awareness, participatory government, and design science and development.

What binds all of these topical themes together is the emphasis on finite resources available to serve a growing highly mega-urbanized networked glocal population that places immense pressures on the natural environment. Take for example the Beijing-Shanghai corridor fueled with several megacities that are each suffering dire environmental problems. Scientists internationally have especially attempted to raise alarm bells as they report on increases in carbon emissions and air pollution, on rising sea levels (e.g., Jakarta), on changing weather patterns (El-Niño), on dying species of plants and wildlife, on the need for recycling and unacceptable means of waste disposal (especially e-waste), and on the fundamental necessity for clean drinking water.

There is no such thing as the “land of plenty.” Pristine artesian wells are being drilled as a last resort to supplying water to the impoverished. Oil reserves are fast depleting but stockpiles are in the hands of the accumulators. Rich minerals like coal and iron ore are being mined amidst a flurry of research activity into affordable renewable energy sources. Categorically our present actions will have a direct impact on our livelihoods (economic, health, social), and those of our children, and our children's children.

But we are living in the “upgrade generation” fueled by mass production, instantaneous consumption, and enough waste generation to land-fill entire new nations. The core question is whether technology can help solve some of the biggest problems facing our earth or whether the rhetoric that says using technology to correct economic externalities is a misnomer. team survey damage along the Ciliwung River using GeoSocial Rapid Assessment Survey Platform (#GRASP) via Twitter, as neighborhood children look on. team survey damage along the Ciliwung River using GeoSocial Rapid Assessment Survey Platform (#GRASP) via Twitter, as neighborhood children look on.

Let us ponder on the affirmative however. What role can big data play in civic infrastructure planning and development? Can citizens contribute data via crowdsourcing technologies to help service providers and government have better visibility of the problems on the ground?

For example, in the Chinese megacities that have emerged, capturing data that indicates where there is a pressing need for cleaner drinking water is imperative for the health and welfare of citizens. Doing this systematically might mean that citizens contribute this knowledge via a text message or through the use of social media, giving municipal and provincial governments and specific agencies in charge of waterways, such as environmental protection authorities, an ability to better plan and respond in a timely manner.

Similarly, if we can monitor zones prone to flooding that affect tens of millions of people, we might be able to lessen the burden on these citizens by informing civil infrastructure planners in the government to respond to the underlying problems perpetuating the flooding during monsoon season. Refer here to the work of Etienne Turpin and Tomas Holderness of the SMART Infrastructure Facility Here citizens send a text message using Twitter, some with location information and others with photographs attached, allowing partner organizations such as NGOs to get a complete picture of trends and patterns at a dwelling level, and collectively assess areas of major concern affected by banjir (i.e., floods). Is it possible to use this data to drive change?

Socio-technical systems in their purest form are there to fulfill user-centered aims, and not to act against an individual's freedom and human rights. Will we be able to convert the present senseless surveillance fueled by mega-companies and governments to a net-neutral opt-in detection and alert system toward access for basic needs and longer term sustainability for communities far and wide? At what point will citizens be able to donate their mobile and Internet and general utilities data without the risk of potential harm to themselves and their families? Or are we blindly being led down a utopian scenario that will ultimately be used to control or manipulate the masses even further?

Additionally, what will be the repercussions on private enterprise? To date utility companies have been taking advantage of their own inability to offer services that run on efficient energy redistribution to their subscribers. Of course it has never been in their best interest to “rob from the rich to feed the poor,” precisely because by offering this kind of redistribution, utilities companies would negatively be impacting on their bottom line. What will all this big-data achieve? An ever-greater ability to scrutinize the subscriber, based on smart meter data, in order to generate even more revenues for private companies who have taken on once government-based responsibilities.

We must not be myopic – big data can be used for us or against us. This issue presents the positive value of “collective action,” a fundamental ability to commandeer resources together, often self-organized, toward the benefit of our community at large. This is not a new phenomenon but with the aid of technology, both data collection and analysis have become possible at granular levels of detail. It is up to us to anticipate the risks associated with such engineering design principles, and introduce safeguards that will make such an approach work.

Citation: Katina Michael, Xi Chen, 2014, "The State-Society Relationship: Big Data's Big Future - But for Whom", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Volume: 33, Issue: 3, Fall 2014, pp. 7-8. DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2014.2349572

Converging and coexisting systems towards smart surveillance

Automatic identification technologies, CCTV cameras, pervasive and mobile networks, wearable computing, location-based services and social networks have traditionally served distinct purposes. However, we have observed patterns of integration, convergence and coexistence among all these innovations within the information and communication technology industry.

Read More