Workshop ’17

The idea to hold an interdisciplinary workshop arose out of dialogues and discussions with masters and doctoral students, postdocs and professors working in the field of robotics, followed by a contribution to the Swiss Philosophy Salon and participation in the 2016 IEEE summit Artificial Intelligence and Ethics – Who does the thinking?

The workshop was organized by doctoral and masters students from the engineering, computer science and philosophy departments at ETH Zürich. The interdisciplinary group strives to achieve mutual exchange and learning, and aims to create, and expand the space for discussion.

The workshop was supported by Prof. Gerd Folkers, the Critical Thinking Initiative and the chair for Philosophy with Particular Emphasis on Practical Philosophy at the GESS-Department.


Moral Machines?
Ethical Implications of Contemporary Robotics

February 23 – 24, 2017
ETH Zürich

The interdisciplinary workshop is dedicated to the ethical questions surrounding the field of robotics.  The idea of the workshop is to deepen the understanding and sensitivity for possible ethical problems arising in the daily work we do as engineers or programmers, as well as to provide an understanding of the technical challenges and possibilities for the philosophers.

The goal of the workshop is to foster:
– the ability to name the different dimensions and implications of ethical and technical questions in our work
– the ability to articulate ethical and technical questions in a proper manner
– the ability to apply different ethical approaches to contemporary cases
– the ability to argue for and against certain solutions.

The workshop will contain:
– Three expert lectures in the fields of robotics and ethics (speaker biographies)
– Discussion of short texts from philosophy and applied ethics
– Work on technological case-studies in small, interdisciplinary groups

At the end of the workshop, each group will present their findings of the discussed case-studies and defend their proposed solutions to some of the identified ethical problems. The workshop is open to masters and doctoral students from the engineering, computer science and philosophy departments of ETH and UZH. The evening lecture is open to all ETH students and personnel, without registering for the workshop.

Day 1 (February 23rd)

ETH Zürich, Clausiusstrasse 59, 8092 Zürich, RZ F 21

9.00 – 9.15am
Welcome address

9.15 – 10.30am
Lecture I:
Why Robot Ethics?
Dr. Peter Asaro
This talk will examine the main perspectives on Robot Ethics. This will include the primary motivations for Robot Ethics, and illustrative cases including self-driving cars and autonomous weapons. Part of the challenge of Robot Ethics lies in delineating the various perspectives of engineers, manufacturers, users, and the public. Addressing those challenges requires recognizing the complex dynamics between technology and society, and how the framing of engineering problems intersects with social and ethical values.

10.45 – 12.00am
Lecture II:
Embodiment versus Memetics: What AI semantics tells us about human intelligence
Dr. Joanna Bryson

Does language understanding require direct experience of the physical world, or can culture–like life evolve without the understanding of its hosts? Here in joint work with Aylin Caliskan-Islam and Arvind Narayanan I show that human-like semantic biases are present in standard natural language processing tools (e.g. GloVe and word2vec) learning from the World Wide Web. We have replicated a spectrum of standard human biases as exposed by the Implicit Association Test and other well-known psychological studies. Our results indicate that language itself contains recoverable and accurate imprints of our visceral reactions and historic biases, whether these are morally neutral as towards insects or flowers, problematic as towards race or gender, or even simply veridical, reflecting the status quo for the distribution of gender with respect to careers or first names. I discuss implications for both AI and NI.


1.30 – 3pm
Lecture III:
Embedded Ethics: The Philosophical-Anthropological Substrate of AI
Dr. Vanessa Rampton
It has been argued that ethical precepts are embedded in every form of artificial intelligence. Yet the ethical reflection that accompanies AI has traditionally focused on extreme situations or dramatic questions. In this lecture I explore the myriad of ethical choices that arise from the fact that machines that think and talk are now a part of the everyday life of many households. It discusses several approaches to moral deliberation that are currently well established in the Western philosophical tradition (including consequentialism, deontology and care ethics). The lecture will highlight their core features, address some common misunderstandings, and illustrate how these approaches complement or conflict with each other regarding some roboethics issues, such as driverless cars and care robots.

3.15 – 3.30pm
Introduction of case studies

3.30 – 5pm
Working group session I

5.15 – 6.30pm
Keynote lecture:
Human Autonomy and the Hazards of Principle Agency in an Era of Expanding AI
Dr. Joanna Bryson

Artificial Intelligence is often treated as an alien force or an unruly, potentially dangerous child. In fact, it is just a special case of computation being commodified. Intelligence is the triggering of appropriate actions in response to perceived events. Information technology has been allowing us to enhance our capacity to do this arguably for thousands of years. It allows us to both remember and perceive more than we could as individuals, sometimes at the expense of others. In this talk I will rst redescribe AI as an ecological feature of one species and show how it affects not only our world but ourselves as individuals. Then I will talk about British efforts to regulate AI. Finally, I will address why we should not construct AI to be a legal or moral agent, because it is ill advised and easily avoided, at least for commercial products.

Please note: The keynote lecture is open to all members of ETH, Place: RZ F21, see poster.

Day 2 (February 24th)

ETH Zürich, Haldeneggsteig 4, 8092 Zürich, IFW A 36

10.15 – 11.15am
Lecture IV:
Robot Ethics as a Design Problem
Dr. Peter Asaro
This talk will survey various approaches to incorporating Robot Ethics concerns in the design and engineering of robotics. This will include design processes such as Value Sensitive Design, Participatory Design, and the development of standards such as the British Standards Institution’s BS 8611:2016 Standard for «Robots and Robotic Devices: Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems» and the IEEE P7000 Standard for a «Model Process for Addressing Ethical Concerns During System Design».

11.15 – 12.00am
Working group session II


1.30 – 2.30pm
Presentation of case studies

2.30 – 3pm
Closing comments


Speaker Biographies

Dr. Joanna Bryson is a Reader (tenured Associate Professor) at the University of Bath, currently visiting Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP). She has broad academic interests in the structure and utility of intelligence, both natural and artificial.   She is best known for her work in systems AI and AI ethics, both of which she began during her PhD in the 1990s, but she and her colleagues publish broadly, into biology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, cognitive science, and politics.  She is currently collaborating on a project funded by Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, “Public Goods and Artificial Intelligence”, with Alin Coman of Princeton Psychology and Mark Riedl of Georgia Tech.  This project includes both basic research in human sociality and experiments in technological interventions.  Other current research includes work on understanding the causality behind the link between wealth inequality and political polarization, work on transparency in AI systems, and work on machine prejudice deriving from human semantics.  She holds degrees in Psychology from Chicago and Edinburgh, and in Artificial Intelligence from Edinburgh and MIT.  At Bath she founded the Intelligent Systems Research Group (one of four in the Department of Computer Science) and heads their Artificial Models of Natural Intelligence.

Dr. Peter Asaro is a philosopher of science, technology and media. His work examines artificial intelligence and robotics as a form of digital media, and the ways in which technology mediates social relations and shapes our experience of the world. His current research focuses on the social, cultural, political, legal and ethical dimensions of military robotics and UAV drones, from a perspective that combines media theory with science and technology studies. Dr. Asaro has held research positions at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University, the HUMlab of Umeå University in Sweden, and the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. He has also developed technologies in the areas of virtual reality, data visualization and sonification, human-computer interaction, computer-supported cooperative work, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robot vision, and neuromorphic robotics at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA), the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and Iguana Robotics, Inc., and was involved in the design of the natural language interface for the Wolfram|Alpha computational knowledge engine for Wolfram Research–this interface is also used by Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Bing to answer math queries, and won two 2010 SXSW Web Interactive Awards for Technical Achievement and Best of Show.

He is completing an Oral History of Robotics project that is funded by the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. He has also just initiated a new three-year project on Regulating Autonomous Artificial Agents: A Systematic Approach to Developing AI & Robot Policy, funded by the Future of Life Institute.

Dr. Asaro received his PhD in the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also earned a Master of Arts from the Department of Philosophy, and a Master of Computer Science from the Department of Computer Science.

Dr. Vanessa Rampton studied history, political science and law at the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies where she received a Licence (B.A and an M.A.) in 2004. She went on to study history and philosophy with particular reference to Russian culture at University College London where she received an M.A. in 2006. She received a Ph.D. from King’s College, University of Cambridge (where she was a Commonwealth Trust Scholar) in 2013 for her thesis on philosophies of freedom and liberalism in Russia. In 2014 she was briefly affiliated with the University of Zurich’s Chair of Political Philosophy before joining the current Chair as an ETH Fellow in 2015. As of 2017 she holds a Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellowship.

Her research interests span several topics in the history of ideas, political philosophy and ethics, and range from dilemmas of progress in Russian history to what counts as liberalism in modern democracies. Presently, her main research interests have to do with the commonly held values and opinions in modern liberal democracies that inform how we manage persistent ambivalences in knowledge and ethics. The guiding thread of her research has been to connect philosophical and political argumentation with a concrete historical and cultural context. It is marked by the firm conviction that moral and political philosophers must pay close attention to the cultural (historical, societal, and institutional) parameters that shape our commitment to certain kinds of knowledge and ethical beliefs. This focus led her to use eastern European history as a way of questioning commonly held assumptions in political philosophy or ethics, as often those disciplines are informed by western historical examples. It has also led to her current appointment as a Branco Weiss Fellow, where she will investigate the links between culture, knowledge and ethics, this time with reference to contemporary medicine as practiced in Europe and North America.