My post-doc proposal on the ethics of human-robot relationships has been accepted

After the recent merger of our faculty of Behavioral Sciences with the faculty of Management and Public Administration, the University of Twente initiated the Tech4People initiative to stimulate collaborations between the existing departments. After two rounds of reviews, my post-doc proposal on the ethics of human-robot relationships was one of those that were granted. Underneath is a summary of the submitted proposal.

Human-Robot Relationships and the Good Life

Demographic changes in our Western societies estimate that in 2060 30% of the EU population will be over 65 years old (European Commission, 2012). This results in less young people in the labor market to support the health care system and an increasing need for the care of older people. With the prices of robot manufacture falling, robots are believed to be a solution for this problem with following and monitoring solitarily living elderly people and perform caregiving tasks. Today, robots are increasingly build to interact socially with humans. These socially interactive robots are perceived by its users as social entities and users tend to assign humanlike characteristics to them (Kerepesi et al., 2006). As lonely people more easily attribute social characteristics to robots (Eyssel & Reich, 2013), the permanent presence of socially interactive robots in the home of older persons living alone might serve as a fertile ground for human-robot relationships. And despite the pervasive role of technology in modern society and contemporary life, very little research on well-being has focused on technology (Brey, 2012). This proposal will investigate if and how companionship with socially interactive robots affects the psychological well-being of elderly people.

The ‘good life’ refers to the physical and psychological well-being of people. Although traditionally being a philosophical topic, in recent decades well-being, or positive psychology, has become an important concern in psychology (Brey, 2012). Positive psychology focuses on finding and nurturing talent and making normal life more fulfilling (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Research in positive psychology aims at developing positive practices that enhance human well-being, and focuses on supporting positive experiences, positive individual qualities, or positive social processes and institutions.

Research on human-robot interaction provides evidence that people can establish some kind of emotional or social bond with socially interactive robots (de Graaf, Ben Allouch, & Klamer, in press), especially when these robots are perceived as advanced technologies (de Graaf & Ben Allouch, 2014). People might even benefit from these relationships with robots in particular situations (Broadbent et al., 2009). Socially interactive robots are robots for which social interaction plays a key role in their interactions with users and aim to exhibit the following characteristics: social learning and imitation, dialog, learning and developing social competencies, exhibit distinctive personality, establishing and maintaining social relationships (Fong et al., 2003). People interact similarly with robots as they do with other people (Kerepesi et al., 2006). In addition, the fundamental human motivation for the ‘need to belong’ not only induces the desire for meaningful and enduring relationships with other humans (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), but also increases the probability that people will form emotional attachments to artificial beings as well (Krämer, Eimler, von der Putten, & Payr, 2011). This bonding with non-human objects is most likely to be enlarged when these objects possess lifelike abilities and are endowed with humanlike capacities, such as socially interactive robot.

Ethical concerns related to socially interactive robots, especially those developed for care settings, are increasingly gaining attention (Sharkey & Sharkey, 2012). The perceptions of life largely depends on the observation of intelligent behavior, and the more intelligent a being is the more rights we tend to grant to it (Bartneck et al., 2007). People, thus, may fall prey to accepting robotic companionship without the moral responsibilities that real, reciprocal relationships involves (Kahn et al., 2013). Therefore, it is argued that any benefits gained from interactions with robots are the consequences of deceiving people into thinking they could establish relationships with robots. People might feel happy when interacting with robots and forming relationships with them. However, this some scholars (Sparrow & Sparrow, 2006) debate that this is a delusion, because those people mistakenly believe that robots have properties which they do not and failure to apprehend the world accurately is a moral failure. This calls for an evaluation on how human-robot relationships affect the psychological well-being of elderly people when they bond with socially interactive robots.