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A pair of philosophers probe the ethical implications of designing social robots

Living with Robots

Paul Dumouchel and Luisa Damiano
Harvard University Press
280 pp.
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In Living with Robots, Paul Dumouchel and Luisa Damiano foresee a social space inhabited by a variety of artificial agents possessing a spectrum of cognitive architectures. These range from entities completely deprived of physical dimensions, such as virtual banking advisers or military assistants, to social robots able to stand in for humans in such contexts as elderly care or special education.

Originally published in France in 2016, Living with Robots combines the authors’ expertise in philosophy—in particular, Dumouchel’s scholarship on the role of emotion in shaping social life and Damiano’s work on human and artificial cognition—to offer insight into problems raised by advances in robotics and artificial intelligence that will be faced by future societies. Throughout the book, the authors provide a conceptual framework for thinking about possible scenarios of human-robot interactions, most extensively with regard to our relationships with social robots.

The distinguishing characteristic of social robots is their ability to engage in emotional, affective, and empathic exchanges with humans. Because emotional interactions can leave participants vulnerable to manipulation or abuse, it is essential that we define ethical guidelines for human-robot interactions. “Synthetic ethics,” the authors argue, cannot consist of a preconceived set of rules like the ethical code programmed into autonomous missile defense systems. How we actually choose to live with social robots, the types of emotional exchanges we have with them, and the progress and direction in which social robotics develops will all inform how such guidelines take shape and evolve.


An elderly woman interacts with a robotic companion at the Leo Polak House in Amsterdam.

Because ethical guidelines will be shaped by individual exchanges between autonomous social actors, human engagement in the design process is twofold. Artificial empathy will depend on whether the human designer chooses to prioritize the superficial display of humanlike emotions (like “Geminoid,” an artificial doppelganger built by the roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro to serve as a synthetic stand-in) or whether the robot will be equipped with an emotional architecture (like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Kismet,” a cartoonlike head that expresses emotions in an “affective loop” created during exchanges with humans).

Less obviously, but most importantly, human actors must be aware of the emotions that they project onto robots. These emotions will affect the stereotypes that are perpetuated into all future human-robot interactions.

In Western societies, a generalized anxiety about artificial intelligence pervades popular culture. This techno-dread may arise from a larger concern: the fear of the automatized society that has been present since the Industrial Revolution. After all, the word “robot” was first used by Karel Capek in reference to a group of humans enslaved in the role of servants. Revising negative stereotypes will, according to the authors, lower the level of anxiety that is associated with robots and with artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, Western culture does not have a monopoly on evaluating human-robot interactions. Dumouchel and Damiano provide anecdotes about techno-optimism among the Japanese, many of whom believe that robots can be friendly, helpful, and even morally superior to us. Stepping outside cultural relativism enables us to reconsider the source of our fear. Instead of imagining robots stealing our jobs, for example, we are invited to consider the unexpected success of Paro, a soft robot designed to mimic a baby seal that—despite its limited interactivity—has been shown to have positive effects on the mental health of people in elder-care facilities.

Living with Robots will meet various expectations, uniting the intellectual depth of a carefully documented academic treatise with the pleasure of a casual page-turner. Those in search of cultural erudition are provided with myriad references to books and movies, and those with a taste for technical novelty are treated to fascinating descriptions of the most hi-tech social robots.

According to the traditional account of cognition, defended by such philosophers as Descartes, human cognition is the only type of cognition. This traditional view needs to be replaced. Humans and robots have different types of cognitive architectures, true, but neither is ultimately better or worse than the other.

The future of robotics, reveal Dumouchel and Damiano, is deeply humanistic, the ethics of which will emerge from real-life interactions between human and artificial agents. As Living with Robots reminds us, however, we, as the designers and social actors, hold the greater responsibility for the direction and quality that these relationships ultimately take.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Philosophy, Lund University, Lund, Sweden.