The BESTBOT on Mars

Living, working, and sleeping in small spaces next to the same people for months or years would be stressful for even the fittest and toughest astronauts. Neel V. Patel underlines this fact in a current article for MIT Technology Review. If they are near Earth, they can talk to psychologists. But if they are far away, it will be difficult. Moreover, in the future there could be astronauts in space whose clients cannot afford human psychological support. “An AI assistant that’s able to intuit human emotion and respond with empathy could be exactly what’s needed, particularly on future missions to Mars and beyond. The idea is that it could anticipate the needs of the crew and intervene if their mental health seems at risk.” (MIT Technology Review, 14 January 2020) NASA wants to develop such an assistant together with the Australian tech firm Akin. They could build on research by Oliver Bendel. Together with his teams, he has developed the GOODBOT in 2013 and the BESTBOT in 2018. Both can detect users’ problems and react adequately to them. The more recent chatbot even has face recognition in combination with emotion recognition. If it detects discrepancies with what the user has said or written, it will make this a subject of discussion. The BESTBOT on Mars – it would like that.

HTML, SSML, AIML – and MOML?

On behalf of Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel, a student at the School of Business FHNW, Alessandro Spadola, investigated in the context of machine ethics whether markup languages such as HTML, SSML and AIML can be used to transfer moral aspects to machines or websites and whether there is room for a new language that could be called Morality Markup Language (MOML). He presented his results in January 2020. From the management summary: “However, the idea that owners should be able to transmit their own personal morality has been explored by Bendel, who has proposed an open way of transferring morality to machines using a markup language. This research paper analyses whether a new markup language could be used to imbue machines with their owners’ sense of morality. This work begins with an analysis how a markup language is structured, describes the current well-known markup languages and analyses their differences. In doing so, it reveals that the main difference between the well-known markup languages lies in the different goals they pursue which at the same time forms the subject, which is marked up. This thesis then examines the possibility of transferring personal morality with the current languages available and discusses whether there is a need for a further language for this purpose. As is shown, morality can only be transmitted with increased effort and the knowledge of human perception because it is only possible to transmit them by interacting with the senses of the people. The answer to the question of whether there is room for another markup language is ‘yes’, since none of the languages analysed offer a simple way to transmit morality, and simplicity is a key factor in markup languages. Markup languages all have clear goals, but none have the goal of transferring and displaying morality. The language that could assume this task is ‘Morality Markup’, and the present work describes how such a language might look.” (Management Summary) The promising results are to be continued in the course of the year by another student in a bachelor thesis.

Moral Machines and Ethical Correctness

The demand for autonomous vehicles is globally increasing. But its market penetration has to wait. There is a global disagreement concerning the correct “behaviour” of the cars, as a project supported by the MIT shows. moralmachine.mit.edu is an online platform, where people all over the world are introduced in various scenarios about Autonomous Driving (AD). For every single case, they are asked about their opinion, how the car would react correctly. The actual results present many differences among the various cultures, but also within the single societies groups exist mutually contradicting in their point of view. This resulting varience makes the manufacturers facing the problem of how the car should be programmed: uniquely for all, individually for each society and if so, what about the groups with a different ethical understanding? What has been globally similar up to a certain degree, was the opinion that the car should react utilitarian (causing the least misery in case of an accident). Hence, this is interesting as you would hardly use such a car with the knowledge it could react in a way harming your safety. In the utilitarian case, this could happen, creating a social dilemma.  Adjusting the car to that broadly shared opinion, the manufacturers would run to risk of selling no car or at least not enough. Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel has published various articles about the issues caused by AD and ethics (see here). From his point of view, human road users should neither be quantified nor qualified. He also advocates that the vehicles have to be moralized towards animals like hedgehogs and toads. But in general, also the experts are at odds. So, how should the car manufacturers deal with all of these different interests and aspects? How should the society, in general, deal with ethical questions arising with the progress of technologies? Globally unique, individually for each country? The question, when autonomous cars will enter the mass market, is accordingly not depending on the progress of technologies, but rather on the ability to reduce 6 billion people to a common denominator.

The Future of Autonomous Driving

Driving in cities is a very complex matter. There are several reasons for this: You have to judge hundreds of objects and events at all times. You have to communicate with people. And you should be able to change decisions spontaneously, for example because you remember that you have to buy something. That’s a bad prospect for an autonomous car. Of course it can do some tricks: It can drive very slowly. It can use virtual tracks or special lanes and signals and sounds. A bus or shuttle is able to use such tricks. But hardly a car. Autonomous individual transport in cities will only be possible if the cities are redesigned. This has been done a few decades ago. And it wasn’t a good idea at all. So don’t let autonomous cars drive in the cities, but let them drive on the highways. Should autonomous cars make moral decisions about the lives and deaths of pedestrians and cyclists? They should better not. Moral machines are a valuable innovation in certain contexts. But not in the traffic of cities. Pedestrians and cyclists rarely get onto the highway. There are many reasons why we should allow autonomous cars only there.