A $6 million project to initiate ethical and technical standardization across the European senior care service robotics community is underway in the UK.
If successful, the ACCOMPANY (‘Acceptable Robotics Companions for Ageing Years’) project could help enable the widespread adoption of care robots throughout the European Union by providing academics and industry with a technical and ethical framework within which service robots can be designed and implemented.
“Before we can place this type of robotic technology in peoples’ homes, we need to be able to standardize them and develop certifications for robotic technologies,” says project lead, Farshid Amirabdollahian, an expert in assistive technologies from the University of Hertfordshire.
Using Care-O-bot 3 –a commercially available robotic testing and development platform developed by ACCOMPANY consortium participant Fraunhofer IPA— the consortium will investigate how seniors interact with robots, the features they would like care robots to have, and their preferred kind of user interface.
“We’re not yet at a level of leaving domestic, assistive robots like these unattended with people because we’re still looking at what the standard should be. That’s one of the reasons why we are still quite far away from commercialization,” says Amirabdollahian.
On the technical side, the ACCOMPANY project involves social and empathic interaction design, environment and activity monitoring, and robot learning. These studies will help define standards that lay out what technical capabilities and limitations service robots should have.
On the end-user side, researchers will determine user requirements and address a range of possible ethical scenarios. This means answering broad questions ethical questions like: ‘How can we be sure that this machine isn’t going to harm a human being?’ ‘Should there be ‘golden rules’ established governing machine and human interaction?’ and ‘How much privacy should elderly people expect to get from their robot companions?’
It also means addressing ethical scenarios in some detail, to determine when, for example, a robot should be able to restrain the person it is caring for or under what conditions the robot should contact human care service providers.
The stakes are high enough in assistive robotics to justify the creation of ethical standards and guidelines, says Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, who is not involved in the ACCOMPANY project.
“It’s always a good idea to think about possible liabilities and unintended effects and to at least start thinking about how we could address those issues in the design of service robots or from a policy perspective,” says Lin.
The ethical issues around elderly care fall into three main areas, says Lin, who was lead editor on “Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics,” (MIT Press, 2011).
First, there’s a personal ethical responsibility to care for elderly people both in your family and across society, second, is the risk that robots could pose to senior citizens and the third is trust, with some senior citizens possibly trusting their domestic robot too much.. or too little.
“If it’s true that robots are particularly good at ‘the three Ds’ [tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous], then which D is the care giving robot supposedly solving? It could be all three, but we should be careful when we start thinking of our ethical obligations in that way,” says Lin.
ACCOMPANY received funding from the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for Research and Technological Development and is due to end by September 2014.
The funding is part of a significant European Commission investment in social care robotics that goes beyond engineering to explore legal, ethical, and social issues surrounding human-robot interaction in social care environments.
The $11 million, FP7, Robot-Era project, for example, is testing integrated teams of robots in smart environments with the aim of improving robotically-provided senior care and is scheduled to run until the end of 2015.
Meanwhile, ACCOMPANY will build on the results of LIREC –another FP7-funded project– which has been studying the development of robots as home assistance for a general user group.Read More