Still of Will Smith and a robot from the movie ‘I, Robot’
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Comment: What industry can learn from new robotic standards

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Manufacturers need to address ethics as they build increasing numbers of machines designed to operate collaboratively alongside humans in the workplace.

When science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote about the three laws of robotics in his 1942 novel ‘Runaround’, little did he know they would one day become a reality for a world filled with robots. From automated manufacturing plants, medical and pharmaceutical applications to military, agricultural and automotive systems, robots are everywhere in our modern world.

Asimov’s laws dictate that a robot must not injure a human being, must obey humans and must protect itself. Seventy-five years on from their appearance, the British Standards Institute (BSI) recently released a new set of standards for the ethical design of robots and robotic devices, BS 8611, that highlight the growing need for guidelines on robotic safety, contact with human beings, robotic deception, addiction and possible sexism or racism exhibited by self-learning artificial intelligence systems.

BS 8611 builds on Asimov’s laws and aims to help designers and manufacturers consider the ethical hazards of robots. It states that, “robots should not be designed solely or primarily to kill or harm humans; humans, not robots, are the responsible agents” and that “it should be possible to find out who is responsible for any robot or its behaviour”.

Industry can learn a number of important things from the new standards. For example, the need to focus on robot safety. In large part, the standards cater for the rise in artificial intelligence. Although this is one of the most exciting developments in robotics, it is not currently where the majority of robots are used. The industrial robot sector is the principal driver in the general robotics market, accounting for a 33 per cent rise in 2015 according to a report by the International Federation of Robotics.

The new standards make it clear that a robot must be “safe, secure and fit for purpose”. As such, the introduction of BS 8611 will have far-reaching implications, particularly for industrial applications where hazardous robotic environments can pose serious risk of injury to human workers. Many of the deaths caused by industrial robots in recent years might have been avoided if their design considered smart algorithms and programming that was aware of human presence.

Equipment manufacturers also need to change the way they design robots for the future. To date, the majority of industrial robots have been used in traditional applications including factory automation, automotive, metalworking and electronics assembly. The rise of smaller and lighter robots capable of delivering higher payloads with very high accuracy means that OEMs need to rethink their approach.

Aerospace, pharmaceutical, food and medical manufacturing are amomg the sectors increasingly demanding specific requirements for each application. Whether it’s aerospace robots that need to use lightweight, high-torque gears for the vacuum of space, pharmaceutical and food robots that need ingress protection for easy cleaning, or collaborative robots used for small electronics assembly alongside human workers, the traditional approach to robotics simply will not work. 

For example, gears made by my company Harmonic Drive have been used on Nasa’s Mars rovers. As the system was remotely controlled from Earth, it was vital that the gearing system provide smooth, zero-​backlash, repeatable movements with absolute accuracy in a low-weight design.

By considering the specific applications and choosing the right components for each one, design engineers can embrace the new wave of robot developments.

It’s also important to remember that humans will remain responsible for a robot’s actions. As robots become more sophisticated, our perception of traits such as deception, addiction, sexism and racism will only grow. Despite this, a responsible human being will always need to be accountable for the robot’s actions.

Although this raises many legal and ethical questions, we can reduce the risks by improving transparency in the robotics supply chain, by choosing the right component manufacturer at the outset, setting high standards for design engineering and product testing and better recycling obsolete systems.

By changing our approach to the way we design and use robots, engineers, manufacturers and users can embrace, rather than fear, robot ethics.

Graham Mackrell is managing director of Harmonic Drive UK

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