Should We Be Nice to Robots?

When you were growing up, your parents probably taught you to be kind to others. There are a lot of reasons you should be nice to people: society has rules, you might hurt someone’s feelings, you might get into a fight, it’s wrong, etc. Many people would take this advice a step further and say that you should be kind to any living thing. That is, you shouldn’t be cruel to animals, and you shouldn’t walk around stomping on flowers. Similar reasons apply.

But what about machinery? Should there be a code of ethics for how you treat robots?

It’s hard to watch the video of Big Dog without feeling a pang of sympathy for the robot. Sure it’s just a collection of wires, circuits, and servos. It’s doesn’t have nerve endings, and it’s not programmed to have any emotions or feel any pain. But when you first watch the video, you feel a little sorry for the robot.

You see Big Dog being kicked, slipping and falling on ice, and being forced to try to walk on piles of concrete blocks. It has feet and eyes and something that might be intended to be fur, and it has a name… a name it shares with furry pets that many of us love.

You probably don’t have those feelings for robots in your factory. You don’t think about their having to work 24/7 in harsh environments, and you don’t worry that they might find that pick and place line boring or even soul-destroying.

You probably also don’t kick the machinery. Well, hardly ever.

There has been quite a bit of research on human-robot interactions, and there’s bound to be more as the trend toward human-robot collaboration continues. Nobody who named his car or sleeps with his phone under his pillow will be surprised to discover that people can feel affection for machinery. And the research shows that humans are capable of having human responses to machines. Properly programmed, a robot can cause people to negotiate and to do favors.

But at least one robot has also been the victim of a cruel crime.

And that may be the main reason that we should be nice to robots. They may not care, but it could damage something human in us if we allow ourselves to be unkind, even to robots.