Jul 30, 2010

Robots And Privacy

Posted by in categories: cybercrime/malcode, ethics, robotics/AI

Within the next few years, robots will move from the battlefield and the factory into our streets, offices, and homes. What impact will this transformative technology have on personal privacy? I begin to answer this question in a chapter on robots and privacy in the forthcoming book, Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics (Cambridge: MIT Press).

I argue that robots will implicate privacy in at least three ways. First, they will vastly increase our capacity for surveillance. Robots can go places humans cannot go, see things humans cannot see. Recent developments include everything from remote-controlled insects to robots that can soften their bodies to squeeze through small enclosures.

Second, robots may introduce new points of access to historically private spaces such as the home. At least one study has shown that several of today’s commercially available robots can be remotely hacked, granting the attacker access to video and audio of the home. With sufficient process, governments will also be able to access robots connected to the Internet.

There are clearly ways to mitigate these implications. Strict policies could reign in police use of robots for surveillance, for instance; consumer protection laws could require adequate security. But there is a third way robots implicate privacy, related to their social meaning, that is not as readily addressed.

Study after study has shown that we are hardwired to react to anthropomorphic technology such as robots as though a person were actually present. Reports have emerged of soldiers risking their lives on the battlefield to save a robot under enemy fire. No less than people, therefore, the presence of a robot can interrupt solitude—a key value privacy protects. Moreover, the way we interact with these machines will matter as never before. No one much cares about the uses to which we put our car or washing machine. But the record of our interactions with a social machine might contain information that would make a psychotherapist jealous.

My chapter discusses each of these dimensions—surveillance, access, and social meaning—in detail. Yet it only begins a conversation. Robots hold enormous promise and we should encourage their development and adoption. Privacy must be on our minds as we do.

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