February 01, 2017      

Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently sat down with Gianmarco Veruggio, head of the Genoa Operational Unit of the Italian National Research Council Institute of Electronics, Computer, and Technical Engineering (CNR-IEIIT). Veruggio is a pioneer in telerobotics in extreme environments and is a founder of the growing field of “roboethics.”

In 1980, Veruggio obtained a master’s degree in electronic engineering, computer science, control, and automation from Genoa University. He has worked at the CNR since 1984, and he founded its Robotlab in 1989.

Veruggio also led the first Italian underwater robotics expeditions from 1993 through 2001 and in the Arctic and Antarctic in 2002. The Project E-Robot2 international effort in the Arctic led to Veruggio’s “live science” sessions and his “School of Robotics.”

From 2002 to 2006, Veruggio has promoted the idea of “Roboethics” for the relationship between robots and society and has worked with European organizations. In 2009, he was awarded the title of Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, one of that country’s highest civilian honors, for his efforts for science and society.

This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until Feb. 28, 2017. Here’s a preview:

Pransky: Of all the robot projects you’ve worked on, what has been your favorite and why?

Veruggio: I think my most exciting robot project was designing, building, and exploiting an underwater robot in the real environment of the sea. One of my most exciting moments was wearing my scuba gear and going down to take underwater pictures of my robot swimming in front of me.

Gianmarco Veruggio says he has always been interested in the sea and applying technology to exploration.

Gianmarco Veruggio and the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Ruby2 in 1993.

I was born in Sanremo, an Italian seaside city, and I have always loved and been connected to the sea. My first job was with the Naval Automation Institute, part of the Italian National Research Council, where I worked on pioneering research in virtual reality and applied it to a simulator for the training of marine pilots.

Computer graphics was not developed as it is now, and it was really groundbreaking work. After that, I worked with naval automation, controlling parts of ships by my software and leading an oceanographic campaign at sea.

At a certain point, I put together all of my knowledge about marine technology, information and communication technologies [ICT], the sea, and ships, and in the late ’80s, I had this crazy idea of giving up what I was doing to invest five years of my life to study marine robotics and to build an underwater robot, which was a totally brand-new field to me and my institution.

Exactly five years later, I was diving my robot in Antarctica to help marine biologists perform their research. This was amazing for me because it was the realization of my dream. That’s why I am really passionate about that part of my life.

I am an experimental robotic scientist. I am an engineer. I want to build something that is useful, that works, and that someone else other than me uses.

Pransky: How did you get from underwater robotics to coining roboethics?

Veruggio: During the four long months of my second Antarctic expedition, I began reflecting on what I was doing. What was the sense of my job, of my daily activity?

Roboethics pioneer Veruggio on robot expeditions in the Arctic, Antarctic, and Mediterranean.

Veruggio led the first Italian underwater robotics campaigns.

As a robotic scientist, I was involved in a program of exploring the sea. I followed the activities of Sylvia Earle, a famous marine robotic scientist and Ocean’s Advocate, who founded various initiatives to protect and explore the Earth’s ocean, including Mission Blue.

I have always had similar interests regarding the social effects of scientific and technological discoveries and applications. I had had a passion for philosophy, science fiction, and Asimov in high school.

I went to schools and started discussions with young people to increase my reflection. In 2000, together with Fiorella Operto — an expert in philosophy, science dissemination and education — I founded Scuola di Robotica, an association to bring robotics to young people and to society at large.

Soon thereafter, I thought that I wanted to study the ethics applied to robotics, whose name I imagined being Roboethics. I searched for “roboethics” on Google, and I didn’t find it!

After further investigation, I realized that I was the first one to coin that word [in 2002]. I decided that this was a sign and I took this as a mission. I gave birth to Roboethics by organizing the first symposium in the same city where I was born, Sanremo.

It was very difficult but also gratifying. Imagine calling a famous robotic scientist and asking him or her, “Could you please come to this symposium on oboethics?” What is Roboethics? So it was another great and fun adventure in my life on a very serious topic. It seemed perhaps a little too ahead of its time. Most of my colleagues did not take this topic in earnest.

Veruggio first Roboethics Symposium was held at the last home of Alfred Nobel.

Veruggio at Villa Nobel, where the first Roboetics Symposium was held in 2004.

Precisely for this reason, I held the first Roboethics conference at Villa Nobel, the last home and workshop of Alfred Nobel where he decided to create a foundation — the Nobel Prizes — to reflect upon the negative aspects of his chemical and explosive inventions.

I tried to cling to the shoulders of Nobel to launch Roboethics forward. I thought that it was a key in building the starting ground for Roboethics because everybody that came to that Symposium was probably impressed by the sense of history, the sense of something bigger than us, not just the daily problems with financial budgets, careers, etc., but something that affects all of our lives.

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Pransky: Do you think robots should be made so that they could make a kill decision? Do you think that is something that engineers should be involved with at all, or do you think engineers should just keep themselves to the technology and leave those sorts of kill decisions to politicians or to the military?

Veruggio: I think that although democracy is not perfect, it may be the best way we have today to manage social problems.

I think the decision is for all of society, not just the politicians or corporations or scientists. What is the role of the scientist in my opinion? We are people who know the issues and who can understand the effects of any development. Who understands problems better than a robotic scientist? A lawyer? A priest? A philosopher? A philosopher perhaps doesn’t know anything about technology.

We scientists are part of society, so if we think that a robot should act in a certain way, we should try to make society aware of that. This is a big ethical responsibility for our field.

Unfortunately, history teaches us that there are opportunities to modify data to increase profits for an industry. For example, in the tobacco industry, some scientists hid the dangers of smoking.

Similarly, it would be sad if a robotic engineer signed a study which states that a robot will respect every war convention, will never make errors, and will never kill innocent people. That’s not accurate. I think that a robot today may be a very dangerous machine with a gun in its hand.

But prior to discussing these kinds of technical issues, we should tackle the basic ethical question. We have to decide if a fully autonomous robot can be allowed to kill a human. I do believe that delegating the power of life and death to a non-human entity would lead to the end of humanity.

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