Haptic Ethics: Part 3

Part 3: Foundations

The purpose of this installment of the series is to walk through some abstract ethical principles and point interested readers to resources for further learning. I’m no expert on philosophy; I’m coming to this topic as a technologist, artist, and humanist. The resources below helped me identify three current issues in haptic ethics, which I’ll detail in future installments. For now, let’s zoom out and develop a foundation for further analysis.

General ethical frameworks

Ethical behavior can be defined as action motivated by expression of value. That’s another way of saying that when we take any action at all, we are expressing our values, because we’re choosing one action over another.

Ethics is an age-old topic that spans all human endeavor. Here’s a table that summarizes some common ethical frameworks:

FRAMEWORKCONSEQUENTIALISTDUTYVIRTUE
QUESTIONSWhat kind of outcomes should I produce (or try to produce)?What are my obligations in this situation, and what are the things I should never do?What kind of person should I be (or try to be), and what will my actions show about my character?
FOCUSEnd results, for all people directly or indirectly affectedDuties that exist prior to the situation and determine obligationsCharacter traits of the people involved in the situation
GOALAchieve the best consequences.Always do the right thing.Do whatever a fully virtuous person would do in the circumstances.
MOTIVATIONProduce the most good.Perform the right action.Develop one’s character.
Adapted from Brown University and Ohio University

The consequentialist model prioritizes outcomes. Duty prioritizes adhering to a pre-conceived set of values. The Virtue model prioritizes personal character.

Related fields

Once we understand the basics, we can look at some fields related to haptics that have their own ethical frameworks. Here are a few of them. 

Medical ethics

Medical ethics is a highly developed system, and parts of it might serve us well. However, the medical community has the advantage of a clear, universal, overarching goal: to help patients. Another advantage is, that system is mature to the point of being ancient, having been debated and codified over thousands of years. On the other hand, the Hippocratic Oath is not as straightforward as you might first assume.

AI ethics

There’s been a flurry of activity in recent months to define ethics for AI. From The Verge:

Google isn’t the only company with an ethics board and charter, of course. Its London AI subsidiary DeepMind has one, too, though it’s never revealed who’s on it or what they’re up to. Microsoft has its own AI principles, and it founded its AI ethics committee in 2018. Amazon has started sponsoring research into “fairness in artificial intelligence” with the help of the National Science Foundation, while Facebook has even co-founded an AI ethics research center in Germany.

This push is coming from national, multinational, and corporate organizations. There seems to be broad agreement that this is an urgent concern. According to computer science faculty at Harvard:

Ethical concerns must in many cases be considered before a system is deployed has led to formal integration of an ethics curriculum—taught by philosophy postdoctoral fellows and graduate students—into many computer-science classes at Harvard.

Despite these good faith efforts, it’s currently unclear how the many divergent goals of AI development can be brought under one system, and enforcement mechanisms do not yet exist, if they ever will.

Robot ethics

Robotic ethics are concerned with autonomous action and the consequences and liability of a system acting physically in the world. Currently, this takes the form of questions about how autonomous vehicles calculate morality in difficult situations. Similar questions involving haptics arise when robots are specifically designed to interface with human bodies, such as in combat, intimate relationships, and caregiving. This anthology provides an excellent overview of recent research in these areas.

Ethics of human enhancement

Human enhancement has to do with defining or extending our identity as humans in terms of resilience, optimizing our abilities, and creating entirely new human capabilities. This is also a rich and evolving area of current research. Here is a typology of human enhancement to help clarify the concept:

Enhancement typeExamples
Personal identity transformationHeight enhancement, breast implants
Health-related resilienceInoculation, fluoridation of tap water
Extending capabilitySuperhuman strength
Engineering new kinds of human functionFlight, radiation resistance
Adapted from BBVA OpenMind

The ethics of human enhancement can be examined through these lenses:

  • To what extent should enhancement technology be used for changing personal identity or lifestyle?
  • How do we account for the significance of means of human achievement, if enhancements make certain achievements more attainable?
  • How should enhancements be restrained, in order to keep “open future” for individuals, as opposed to optimizing performance for short term gains?

Much of the above is adapted from this article by Andy Miah. The ethics of human enhancement is a fascinating topic that deserves more examination than I can offer in this brief overview, but I plan to follow this topic closely in the coming months and years.

In the next article, we’ll begin looking at ethical issues specific to haptics.

This is the third article in a series. You can start at the beginning here.

These articles are adapted from a keynote delivered at Smart Haptics 2019. They are also posted to LinkedIn.

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