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Robotics and Ethics – Should There Even be Robot Clones?

robot clones with human-like features

We’ve reached the part of this science fiction movie called life where robot clones (i.e., robotic simulacrums of actual people) are a thing. Putting aside all talk of their practical applications, there’s a pretty big can of worms that this development opens up. That’s right, I’m talking about ethics. Or, more specifically, roboethics.

Is it morally okay to create an artificial copy of someone? What if that person is deceased? Or, if that person is alive, but doesn’t consent to their likeness being put on a robot, is that cool? What if that person doesn’t even know a robot clone of themselves exists? You can answer these hypothetical questions in many different ways, but the bottom line is this: robot clones are creepy.

Robot clones in purple dresses
Twinning with your robot clone, is that creepy or what?

The Arrival of Robot Clones

The introduction of robot clones is not necessarily new. In Japan, researchers and scientists have been exploring robot clones for two decades now. In fact, some robots have even entered mainstream society. The robot, Erica Aoi, became an announcer for Nippon Television network as a robo-journalist. She has discussed topics like robotics and fashion and has even conducted interviews. At least in Japanese culture, there is a wide acceptance without concerns over roboethics and other issues.

However, recent concerns have grown as other robot clone companies enter the scene. Promobot, a Russian start-up, has begun manufacturing autonomous androids for private consumers. The company’s “Robo-C” costs up to $50,000 and can look like anyone, living or otherwise. Despite Robo-C existing from the waist up, it has 18 moving facial parts and 100,000 speech modules. As a result, it can produce up to 600 microexpressions and perform a number of tasks.

To date, Promobot is working on four different robot clones with a total of 10 orders already placed. In addition to one of its robot clones looking like Albert Einstein, the company also created robot clones for a Middle Eastern family. These two robots were to look like the family’s mother and father and their assignment would be to greet guests. In addition to being an odd request, the “creepiness” factor for visitors is likely to be pretty profound.

An Overview of Roboethics

Some suggest that roboethics was initially introduced in the 1940s when writer Isaac Asimov presented the three laws of robotics. The first law required that a robot may not injure a human being through action or inaction. The second law required robots to follow human orders unless they violated the first law. And the third law suggested that robots should protect their own existence, if it doesn’t affect the other two laws. While this sounded reasonable at the time, Asimov’s laws hardly address modern roboethics issues.

In today’s world, robots are increasingly becoming a part of military operations. Notably, if a robot is designed to fight in wars, then Asimov’s first law is completely irrelevant. Secondly, roboethics must address standards of behavior. If human control is necessary, what level of control is sufficient? As artificial intelligence and machine learning advances, robot autonomy will undoubtedly increase. These circumstances thus challenge Asimov’s second law of roboethics.

The introduction of robot clones are raising an entirely new set of issues. For example, if robot clones can look like anyone, is permission required from the individual whose image is being used? Do robot clones infringe upon others’ privacy rights? And what happens if someone is strongly opposes to be the subject for robot cloning? These have clear ethical issues related to justice, autonomy and maleficence that have yet to be addressed.

Exploring Roboethics in the Realm of Robot Clones

Over the past several years, many debates have been held over the topic of cloning. As stem cell research and advances in science have evolved, ethical concerns over cloning were introduced. For the most part, most concerns involved religious beliefs and scientists playing the role of “God”. But much of these concerns arose out of Western religious traditions. Eastern religions, especially those with beliefs in reincarnation, had little issue with genetic cloning. Perhaps, this is why Japan’s acceptance of robot clones has been without any resistance.

Certainly, roboethics related to robot clones will need to address the rights of individuals whose image is being used. Currently, robot clones are far from appearing truly human, which will make this less of a concern for the moment. But as artificial intelligence advances along with robotic technologies, more human-like features will likely appear. And the price tag associated with these robot clones will likely diminish in time. Thus, having a discussion about roboethics as it relates to robot clones should take place sooner rather than later.

So, the question remains…should there even be robot clones? From a practical perspective, robot clones can serve humankind well in many automated capacities. Therefore, it is unlikely to put aside robotics and robot clones due to ethical concerns. However, their development should include some social oversight that addresses the roboethics issues cited. Likewise, as robot clones become increasingly human-like, their own level of moral responsibility should be considered. When unethical choices are made, who is responsible? These are the tough questions that need to be asked, and seeking answers is essential as we enter this brave new world.

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