Ritualizing Robots: Dr. Qin Zhu on Ethics & Human-Robot Interaction

Guest Speakers

By Olivia Burgess

If children are trained to treat robots with respect, saying “Excuse me, Alexa” instead of “Hey, Alexa?”, would they in turn treat other humans more respectfully? This is one of the many intriguing questions that interests Dr. Qin Zhu, who was the first speaker in our STS Speaker Series. 

On March 30th, Dr. Zhu gave a virtual campus talk on his research titled “Ritualizing Robots: A Confucian Approach to the Design of Ethical Human-Robot Interactions.” Dr. Zhu introduced a fundamental concept in STS: technologies reflect human values. For instance, a speed bump in a quiet neighborhood slows you down because people want to create a safe environment. If you do not slow down, your car may be damaged, which is both a physical and social punishment for disregarding the value of safety.

The same applies to robots: they are designed for a purpose, they embody human values, and how we interact with them says a lot about ourselves as moral beings. For instance, if you hit a robot, you may be more likely to hit another human.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Zhu’s work is his application of Confucian ethics to human-robot interaction. According to Confucian ethics, doing the right thing is a matter of understanding and fulfilling our roles. The more we fulfill our roles, the closer we become to cultivating a complete moral self. For example, I have certain expectations to fulfill in my role as a teacher. If I skip classes, grade unfairly, and berate students, I am failing in my role as a teacher and in being a moral person.

To help illustrate his ideas, Dr. Zhu referenced the 2012 film Robot & Frank.  In the film, a busy son buys a robot to help care for his elderly father. According to Confucian ethics, if the robot caretaker simply assists in completing domestic duties and relieves the father of unnecessary work, the robot serves an ethical purpose. However, if the robot begins to substitute for the duties of the son to the father, then the robot becomes problematic. Robots should not be substitutes for the ethical obligation we have to each other.

Robot and Frank (2012)

As robots become more prevalent as caretakers, it will be important to ask what kind of world we are designing and how much responsibility we want to shift away from ourselves and onto robots. From the lens of Confucian ethics, we need to be mindful that we don’t lose a sense of our roles in society and to each other.

During the Q&A, Dr. Zhu pointed out that social changes are inevitable when it comes to emerging technologies, and the allure of integrating robots into our everyday lives is only increasing. “It’s difficult to resist robots,” he explained. However, we might be able to resist the ethical pitfalls that come with living with robots – and design with them in mind.

Dr. Zhu is an Assistant Professor in the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences Department at the Colorado School of Mines. To learn more about his work, visit https://www.qinzhu.org/.

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