Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Robots After Roomba: The Ethics of Electronic Companions

Erika S. Poole

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When you think of the word robot , what comes to mind? Likely, you thought about something out of a science fiction book or film, right?     


Robots, despite their futuristic aura, surround us in everyday life. (Did you know, for instance, that the Korean government is aiming to have a robot in every home by 2013?)  As robots become woven into the fabric of daily life around the world, what ethical issues will humanity face?


In the CHI 2010 closing plenary, Dr Noel Sharkey, Professor of Public Engagement & Senior Media Fellow at the University of Sheffield discussed ethical challenges of human-robot interaction.  His goal, as he said, was to  “take away the science fiction veneer of these things, and get to the cold hard reality of them.” The plenary covered the gamut of human experience; in this article I’ll just focus on Sharkey’s discussion of robots as human companions.   


Let’s start with robots for kids. Using an example of a commercially available robot that serves both as child companion but also as a remote child monitoring device, Sharkey posed a number of ethical dilemmas to the audience. For instance, what rights to privacy does a small child have?  Is it wrong if a child thinks that he or she is talking to a robot companion in private, but parents or caregivers are receiving a remote recording of the child’s conversation?


Kids and adults alike, what happens if humans become too attached to anthropomorphic robots? Are there possibilities of psychological damage?  (Some of Sharkey’s research suggests that, yes, there might be). 


In the final minutes of the closing plenary, Dr. Sharkey moved to an R-rated topic: robots for sex. He posed difficult questions to the audience. For instance, is it acceptable if someone develops robots that resemble small children but are intended for use in sexual practices?


Want some more food for thought about the ethics of robots in everyday life?  Check out Dr. Sharkey’s website at




Erika Shehan Poole is a PhD candidate in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech. Her research focuses on how groups collaborate to use, maintain, and make sense of computing technologies; areas of study have included home technology maintenance practices, public understandings of emerging technologies, workplace adoption of collaboration software, and collaborative gaming technologies for improving health and wellness. Erika holds a BS degree in computer science from Purdue University and an MS in computer science from Georgia Tech.

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