Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Human rights in the robot age: the Rathenau report

Who will take care of me when I end up in a nursing home? A robot? Most probably. A robot so realistic that I, vulnerable as I will be by then, will perceive “him” as the actual person taking care of me. Do we want this? This is not the question, because it will happen. But we do need to decide how we want this to happen without losing our human dignity.

A care robot lifing a person.

The Council of Europe asked the Dutch Rathenau Institute to advise governments how to preserve human dignity and human rights in the Robot Age. The Rathenau report, accessible via this link, is described below.

What happens to our personal information?
Once our castle was our home. But in the age of technology our home has become a place where we are continuously being "watched" via smartphone, smart television, connected objects, etc. This surveillance generates enormous amounts of data about us, about what we read, what we think, how we feel, who we meet, etc. We barely know what happens to this very personal information.

One thing is certain: you don’t own it. You gave it away to social media like Facebook and Google. And don’t think you “use” these social media: they are using you by selling data about you to third parties. These media can only be free if we – the users – are sold. We are nothing but their data, their "raw material".

To respect our dignity, social media users should be fairly compensated for their personal information that is traded. The European Data Protection Supervisor warns against the idea that people can pay with their data in the same way they do with their money. But businesses don't like the idea to regulate the ownership of data. The Rathenau report recommends that guidance be provided in this respect.

We are biased by social media algorithms
Social media show us information on the basis of algorithms. The risk is that the algorithm only show us what we want to see and not the complete picture. Many were surprised when Donald Trump was elected because their news consumption excluded news that did not appeal to Hillary voters (‘echo chamber’ effect). Guidance is needed on the role of the gatekeepers of our information society like Facebook and Google.

We are profiled and sometimes discriminated
With all these personal data freely available to companies, they can profile us. Example: instead of treating people equally, companies can adjust their prices to the category of poor or rich users. In 2012 it was reported that the website Orbiz showed Apple users more expensive offers than non-Apple users. This form of algorithmic profiling for the allocation of resources is discriminatory. Advice is needed on ways to combat algorithmic discrimination. For example by imposing transparency standards: cheaper offers should not be hidden for richer clients.

Social robots: are we in good hands?
Technology is neither good nor bad, but it is not neutral. Care robots for example are good (they enable a person to be autonomous) but also bad (when they become too pushy about taking your medication). The question is: where does autonomy end and unwanted paternalism start? We must avoid the slippery slope to the "authoritarian robot".

Softbots (robots and software) can be so realistic that they manage to engage with us on an emotional level. Many people are already addicted to their smart phones, to their virtual girlfriend or to the game reality. As a result, the person may lose the capacity to enter into meaningful contact with real people. Companies can take advantage of this vulnerability to build "persuasive technology" to influence our decisions. Advice is needed to prevent persuasion technology from becoming too addictive or too authoritarian.

We should have the right to meaningful human contact
The Rathenau Report suggests a new human right: the right to meaningful human contact. It considers that there are situations that cannot be left to machines only: raising children (teaching robots), caring for elderly people (care robots) and warfare (drones). In these cases, technology should only facilitate and not replace human contact and control.


We should have the right to be let alone
The report recommends a second new human right: the right not to be measured, analyzed or coached. This right is currently not applied in the Netherlands. The former government stated that if people do not want to be observed in shops via their wifi signal, they should just turn off their smartphone. This means that the right to track people is deemed more important than their privacy rights. This is potentially harmful: research suggests that “the right to privacy and the possibility to perform every day undertakings without being seen, monitored or noticed, may be fundamental to the development of a sane personality”.

We don’t always have a fair trial
Softbots can speed up court proceedings by using ICT tools for legal decisions. For example for the calculation of conditions for parole and bail. But is has been reported that this software is biased against African Americans. Advice is needed on how to avoid biased software. For example by developing norms for the use of softbots in court proceedings. The suspect’s lawyer should know for example if a tool is used and how it affects the final decision taken.

We should enjoy (e-)possessions
Technology has changed the way we enjoy possessions. We feel we own our land, but do we also own the Pokémon that the developer of this game planted on our land in a virtual reality? This question is relevant because people go to the places where the Pokémons "are" and sometimes cause damage. The municipality of The Hague sued the Pokémon game developer because gamers who were looking for virtual Pokémons had demolished the protected nature area when doing so. Guidance is needed on the notion of ownership in world of virtual reality.

Can we trust legislation about self-driving cars?
Who is responsible when a self-driving car causes an accident? Is it the car manufacturer, the software developers, the seller, the buyer? Or is it the road authorities, as the car will depend in part on digital roadside systems? But more urgently: who's responsible for an accident caused by a car that is driven partly by a human and partly by software, like remote control parking? Accidents like these already happen. Current laws however are not clear about how to apportion liability with regard to robotics. Advice is needed here.

The main recommendation of the Rathenau report is to establish a Convention on Human Rights in the Robot Age that would help answer the questions raised above. Rathenau’s recommendations have already prompted the Council of Europe to put forward a number of proposals. One of them is to establish cooperation between UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the European Union to develop a harmonized legal framework and regulatory mechanisms at the international level. UNESCO’s contribution is already in the making: a report on the ethics of robotics by UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). It will be presented at UNESCO in November by the Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek. 

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