A Morality Markup Language

There are several markup languages for different applications. The best known is certainly the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). AIML has established itself in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). For synthetic voices SSML is used. The question is whether the possibilities with regard to autonomous systems are exhausted. In the article “The Morality Menu” by Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel, a Morality Markup Language (MOML) was proposed for the first time. In 2019, a student research project supervised by the information and machine ethicist investigated the possibilities of existing languages with regard to moral aspects and whether a MOML is justified. The results were presented in January 2020. A bachelor thesis at the School of Business FHNW will go one step further from the end of March 2020. In it, the basic features of a Morality Markup Language are to be developed. The basic structure and specific commands will be proposed and described. The application areas, advantages and disadvantages of such a markup language are to be presented. The client of the work is Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel, supervisor Dr. Elzbieta Pustulka.

Moral and Immoral Machines

Since 2012, Oliver Bendel has invented 13 artifacts of machine ethics. Nine of them have actually been implemented, including LADYBIRD, the animal-friendly vacuum cleaning robot, and LIEBOT, the chatbot that can systematically lie. Both of them have achieved a certain popularity. The information and machine ethicist is convinced that ethics does not necessarily have to produce the good. It should explore the good and the evil and, like any science, serve to gain knowledge. Accordingly, he builds both moral and immoral machines. But the immoral ones he keeps in his laboratory. In 2020, if the project is accepted, HUGGIE will see the light of day. The project idea is to create a social robot that contributes directly to a good life and economic success by touching and hugging people and especially customers. HUGGIE should be able to warm up in some places, and it should be possible to change the materials it is covered with. A research question will be: What are the possibilities besides warmth and softness? Are optical stimuli (also on displays), vibrations, noises, voices etc. important for a successful hug? All moral and immoral machines that have been created between 2012 and 2020 are compiled in a new illustration, which is shown here for the first time.


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.

The Birth of the Morality Menu

The idea of a morality menu (MOME) was born in 2018 in the context of machine ethics. It should make it possible to transfer the morality of a person to a machine. On a display you can see different rules of behaviour and you can activate or deactivate them with sliders. Oliver Bendel developed two design studies, one for an animal-friendly vacuum cleaning robot (LADYBIRD), the other for a voicebot like Google Duplex. At the end of 2018, he announced a project at the School of Business FHNW. Three students – Ozan Firat, Levin Padayatty and Yusuf Or – implemented a morality menu for a chatbot called MOBO from June 2019 to January 2020. The user enters personal information and then activates or deactivates nine different rules of conduct. MOBO compliments or does not compliment, responds with or without prejudice, threatens or does not threaten the interlocutor. It responds to each user individually, says his or her name – and addresses him or her formally or informally, depending on the setting. A video of the MOBO-MOME is available here.

Another Animal-friendly Machine

Between June 2019 and January 2020 the project HAPPY HEDGEHOG (HHH) was implemented at the School of Business FHNW. Initiator and client was Oliver Bendel. In the context of machine ethics, the students Emanuel Graf, Kevin Bollier, Michel Beugger and Vay Lien Chang developed the prototype of a lawnmower robot that stops working as soon as it discovers a hedgehog. HHH has a thermal imaging camera. If it encounters a warm object, it further examines it using image recognition. At night a lamp mounted on top helps. After training with hundreds of photos, HHH can identify a hedgehog quite accurately. Firstly, another moral machine has been created in the laboratory, and secondly, the team provides a possible solution to a problem that frequently occurs in practice: commercial lawnmower robots often kill baby hedgehogs in the dark. HAPPY HEDGEHOG could help save them. The video on youtu.be/ijIQ8lBygME shows it without casing; a photo with casing can be found here. The robot is in the tradition of LADYBIRD, another animal-friendly machine.

Opportunities and Risks of Facial Recognition

The book chapter “The BESTBOT Project” by Oliver Bendel, David Studer and Bradley Richards was published on 31 December 2019. It is part of the 2nd edition of the “Handbuch Maschinenethik”, edited by Oliver Bendel. From the abstract: “The young discipline of machine ethics both studies and creates moral (or immoral) machines. The BESTBOT is a chatbot that recognizes problems and conditions of the user with the help of text analysis and facial recognition and reacts morally to them. It can be seen as a moral machine with some immoral implications. The BESTBOT has two direct predecessor projects, the GOODBOT and the LIEBOT. Both had room for improvement and advancement; thus, the BESTBOT project used their findings as a basis for its development and realization. Text analysis and facial recognition in combination with emotion recognition have proven to be powerful tools for problem identification and are part of the new prototype. The BESTBOT enriches machine ethics as a discipline and can solve problems in practice. At the same time, with new solutions of this kind come new problems, especially with regard to privacy and informational autonomy, which information ethics must deal with.” (Abstract) The book chapter can be downloaded from link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-658-17484-2_32-1.