CS 4002
Robots and Society

Spring 2010
TR 9:35-10:55
Bunger-Henry 311

Ronald Arkin
, ronald.arkin@cc.gatech.edu
238a, Technology Square Research Building, 894-8209
Office Hours: Immediately after class or by appointment

Required Texts:

Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong

By Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen (2009)

Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids
by Sidney Perkowitz (2004)

Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species
by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio (2000).

General Information

Robots and Society examines the role and impact of robotics, distributed sensing and actuation, ubiquitous computing and related technology in society. Robots and Society is an alternative to Computers in Society (CS 4001), and satisfies the required course on ethics for Computing majors. Like 4001, it is not a typical computer science course. Here we are less interested in the technical content of computing and robots, and focus instead on the effects of such technology on individuals, organizations, and society, paying close attention to what your responsibilities are as a computing professional.

There will not be any programming in this class, but you will do a lot of reading, a lot of analyzing, and a lot of communicating (both orally and in writing). Although there are some lectures, this is not a lecture course. Getting the most out of this course (including the best grade) will require your active participation throughout the semester. On any given issue, you may be asked to critique reading assignments from a variety of readings or to summarize group discussions or positions... but don't worry, it should still be fun.


There are several outcomes for the course. By its end, you should be able to:

·         Communicate and argue coherently with others about technology and its impacts both in writing and orally

·         Engage in the global debate on the ethical issues that arise from robotic technology, identifying the salient issues and evaluating the reasoning behind them

·         Achieve and demonstrate a more than adequate writing ability

·         Understand and explain the consequences of your profession on individuals, organizations, and society.

·         Understand and explain the importance of all these issues

You will be challenged to broaden your understanding by learning something of the history of robotics, the similarities and differences in public attitudes and policies concerning robotics in the U.S. and in other countries. Some of these issues are unique to robotics; others arise in the context of computing in general as well as in other technologies; still others are new manifestations of more general ethical, political and constitutional law issues.

You will have ample opportunity to analyze critically various situations and descriptions in papers, books, on the web, and from your own observations.

You will be able to practice your ability to communicate by writing coherent and well-structured critiques of situations and papers, researching and organizing a longer paper, and leading and participating in class discussions and debates.

A detailed topical outline is given below. The actual schedule is available as well.

  1. Techniques of Rhetoric and Logical Argumentation. Arguments as claims supported by reasons. Types of argument concerning the social consequences of robotics and the aptness of robotics-related policies. Evidence, authority, and the anticipation and rebuttal of objections. Communicating with professional peers, customers, and the public.
  2. Ethical Foundations. Rules as the basis for policymaking and legislation relevant to robotics; software as a mechanism for encoding and enforcing business practices, and norms of conduct. Consequences as the basis for policymaking and design decisions: Assessing and balancing the benefits and costs of alternatives to stakeholders. Virtue ethics as the basis for professional conduct and resolution of moral dilemmas (e.g. whistle-blowing). Asimov's Laws.
  3. Societal and Cultural Variations in Robotics Acceptance. Astroboy vs Frankenstein.
  4. Privacy. Personal information, its disclosure and misuse. Surveillance and changing interpretations of the Fourth Amendment.
  5. Robotics and Jobs. Impact of revolutionary technological changes on employment.
  6. Robotics and Defense. Ethical implications of machines that kill or assist in killing. Mixed initative and rank. Lethal force.
  7. Entertainment Robots. Manipulation of the individual through affect in consumer robotics. Robot pets. The illusion of life. Dehumanization and deterioration of humanitys social fabric.
  8. Medical and Assistive Robotics: Human Augmentation and enhancement. Cyborgs.
  9. Sexual activity and robotics. Robot partners. Robot marriage.
  10. Religion and Intelligent Machines.
  11. Robots as Intelligent Beings. Rights related to robots. Robot slavery and society. Robot aspirations.
  12. Professional Responsibility. Professions as more than jobs requiring expertise. Intelligent System design compared to established professions. Professional codes of conduct, their validity, effectiveness and scope. Social responsibility and personal and corporate accountability and liability for harm.

Teaching this Course

The primary purpose of this course is to help you develop into a responsible and effective professional, and that means having a basic understanding of and sensitivity to the ethical issues and principles of our field.

This is not going to happen with a professor lecturing at you about Kant (although this will happen as it turns out). As is the case in most courses, this is less about teaching and more about learning. Our role is to assist you in this process, and to provide enough structure so that a class of forty students can do this effectively.

If we think in terms of data structures, the fundamental one here is the thoughtful dialogue. We will make extensive use classroom discussions and writing assignments. You will be given many opportunities to express your positions on a variety of situations where robotics is having or may one day have an impact. Equally, you will be expected to read and listen critically to the arguments of others, and to demonstrate that you have done so.

This is not a debate course. The goal is not to persuade others with your rhetorical skill--though you will develop the skills to do so--nor is it to "win" the argument. The goal is to gain a better appreciation and understanding of how robotics is changing society and what your responsibilities should be as an effective professional.

In line with this, you are entitled to your opinions on these topics, whatever they happen to be. You will not be penalized for your positions even when we might think said position is insane; however, you must be able to support your arguments effectively. This means showing that you have actually given a position some thought and can discuss the various trade-offs and implications of the position you have chosen. This also means that you should be able take any side of an issue and explain it and argue for it sympathetically, even though your personal views may be different.


We reserve the right to modify any of these plans as need be during the course of the class; however, we will not do anything capriciously, anything that is changed will not be too drastic, and you will be informed as far in advance as possible.