Interview with Dr. Janina Loh

"We are with and through robots and robots are with and through us".

Interview // Dr. Janina Loh

As a child, who among us didn't dream of a robot that would do all those annoying chores for you, like doing your homework, cleaning your room or taking out the trash? What a tantalizing promise the term robot alone carried and still carries - and how many of these tantalizing promises have been fulfilled since the middle of the 20th century: Robots vacuum for us, park and brake for us, help care for people, and yes, robots are also in demand for sex. For many of us, robots are already part of everyday life.

Nevertheless, for most of us they remain the "other" - the non-human, the machine, the apparatus. We spoke to philosopher Dr. Janina Loh by e-mail about the fact that this distinction, which we so unquestioningly carry around in our heads, cannot actually be made so clearly, or only with great difficulty, about how much and in what way humans and machines are interwoven, and about what makes thinking about robots in our society so exciting. She is a university assistant in the field of philosophy of technology and media at the University of Vienna and in December 2019 her book "Roboterethik" will be published by Suhrkamp Verlag.

waterkant // Dear Janina, last December your book "Robot Ethics" was published by Suhrkamp. How does a philosopher get the idea to deal with robots and/or machines in a broader sense?

Dr. Janina Loh // I find the discussion of robots interesting for two primary reasons: First, they are not only a supposedly modern phenomenon that raises many ethical questions in the present, but they also allow us to think about the future and about what kind of society we want to live in. At the same time, they also allow us to take a look at the past, because the idea of autonomous machines is very old indeed, appearing as early as Homer at the latest. Secondly, the robots show that the separation between academic disciplines cannot be maintained. When I deal with robots as a philosopher, I have to enter into dialogue with robotics, AI research, computer science, law, psychology, gender studies, science and technology studies, and so on.

The idea for the book came from the fact that there was no introduction to robot ethics in this way in the German-speaking world. Although there are some very good studies on machine ethics, this is, strictly speaking, something else than robot ethics. For while all robots are machines, not all machines are robots. Robots are special machines and with them questions are raised that probably don't arise when looking at, say, a toaster or a traffic light. Moreover, I wanted to write an introduction that is not only of interest to (prospective) academic philosophers, but to everyone who wants to deal with this topic.

waterkant // To put it bluntly, why should we think about ethics or moral issues in relation to machines?

JL // Human action is never neutral, it always follows, whether consciously or unconsciously, (also) moral values. This is because human action is guided by intentions and reasons. This is how we distinguish it from animal instinct or automated behavior, where we do not need to think. And since human action is never neutral, the products of human action are never neutral either. Ergo, robots as very specific products of human action are also never neutral, because the (also moral) values of their creators always go into them. Very simplified we can say that every human product serves a purpose, and this purpose can be evaluated ethically. A machine gun, for example, was made to inflict immense damage on an opponent. This purpose contains several moral values that we can critically reflect upon.

The ethical questions that arise with respect to robots (as, incidentally, with respect to all other artifacts) can be roughly divided into four categories that are, however, interrelated: ethical questions that arise in the manufacture and design of a robot, ethical questions that arise with respect to the autonomy and scope of the robot in question, ethical questions that relate to the data and security generated in the operation of the robot, and ethical questions that relate to the context and scope of use of the robot in question.

waterkant // You are a researcher at the University of Vienna and are currently working on your habilitation. Topics such as robotics and artificial intelligence always have a strong application-related context. What are your experiences or your impression: do science, and philosophy in particular, interconnect with developers in business to pursue such questions? How many cross-connections are actually made and how fruitful would you say they are?

JL // This follows on somewhat from the first question. Indeed, the disciplines have to work together if they want to discuss the phenomenon of robots comprehensively. And in my opinion, this is increasingly happening. From my personal experience, I can say that the interest of, for example, the technical sciences in collaborating with philosophy has increased significantly in recent years. About 90% of all events to which I am invited are not purely philosophical, but interdisciplinary, and another 90% of these events are not purely academic, but intended for a broader public and also for cooperation with industry.

The robots show very well that the reality of our lives, our reality, is colorful and complex and cannot be neatly sorted into individual disciplines or sectors. With every attempt at classification - for example: Here belong the ethical aspects, here the economic, here the political, etc. - is accompanied by a reductionism and a dangerous competition. For each sector claims to have the really important aspects in view. Not only does such a view tend to be ideological, dogmatic, exclusionary and discriminatory, but we are also invited to shift responsibility from one sector to the next until we reach the point where no one is willing to take responsibility anymore.

waterkant // What would you say is the greatest promise of developments in robotics?

Historically, the term "robot" can be traced back to the Czech word "robota" for work, hard labor and forced labor. In 1921, Karel Čapek used it in the play R.U.R. Rossum's Universal Robots to refer to humanoid apparatuses that are at the service of humans. The first established field of robotics, namely industry, mirrors the vision Čapek creates in the aforementioned play. It is also a core component of the so-called Industry 4.0, the technological transformation of the human working world through digitalization and automation. So far, robots are supposed to take over mainly those jobs that are considered "dull, dangerous, and dirty. I would assume that robots are still formulating the greatest promise, namely to take over tasks for people that they do not want to perform for whatever reason. But at the same time, there is a great risk in this, because it is anything but clear which activities fall under this and who has to decide that an activity is sufficiently boring, dangerous or dirty that a human should no longer perform it!

Robots can, of course, be used far beyond this hope - for example, in art, in teaching and education, in play and as potential companions. Therefore, we have to see things in a more differentiated way here as well.

waterkant // Right now, special circumstances also prevail due to the CoVid19 situation. The virus is already being traded in Internet memes as the driving force of digitization in contexts that are known to be rather dusty. But all joking aside, do you see special opportunities for the use of robots and/or artificial intelligence in the current situation?

JL // Artificial intelligence and robotics are widely used for a variety of purposes with regard to CoVid19, such as diagnosing whether someone is ill or has a raised temperature, searching for vaccines and medicines, suggesting therapies, suggesting which people should be tested for the virus, predicting the course of CoVid19 and the course of an individual's disease, and tracing apps that are currently being discussed. Robots are assisting police in China, diagnosing on the street, at airports and in shopping malls, helping with patrols and ID checks.

But all these areas of use and application of AI and robotics are ultimately not new, but are now merely coming into focus thanks to CoVid19. Certainly, AI helps us to deploy resources and make diagnoses faster, more specifically, more efficiently, and with less risk. But this is exactly what we should always keep in mind: that even the smartest systems merely assist, make suggestions, support. The people involved are not released from their responsibility. People are not prophets - their machines are even less so!

waterkant // Finally, we'd like to know what you think will be the next big thing in the field of these new technologies that we're not even thinking about at the moment, or are only beginning to think about?

JL // To follow up on the end of my last answer, I have a very hard time making predictions because, unfortunately, I'm just a philosopher and not a prophet. And as pointed out, the ways in which we use AI and robotics with CoVid19 in mind are not necessarily new. Even with respect to robotics in general, I'm not sure to what extent we will encounter something completely unexpected here in the future. Even the idea of superintelligence is, after all, already a well-known vision that has been studied in many disciplines. All these conceivable, possible and impossible varieties of AI and robotics are already being discussed in detail and interdisciplinarily (at least in science fiction, which always seems to be a few steps ahead of the sciences) - at least as far as my modest perception goes.

But I would like to put a positive spin on what has been said: Perhaps we should look less for the effect, the new, the exotic and exciting in robotics, because we are not moving here in the realm of science fiction. Humans are technical beings, we are with and through robots and robots are with and through us, we encounter ourselves and we encounter the world in, with and through robots. Isn't it exciting enough to pursue this seemingly trivial truth in all its complexity and differentiation and down to the smallest corners of our being? Moreover, the robots that already exist raise explosive ethical questions that need to be answered because they ultimately affect us all. Let's start with them.

Dr. Janina Loh is a university assistant in the field of philosophy of technology and media at the University of Vienna. Her "Introduction to Trans- and Posthumanism" was published by Junius in 2018 and "Robot Ethics" by Suhrkamp in 2019.

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