Monday 20. September 2021
#212 - February 2018

The robotisation of life – an ethical challenge

Digital data systems are enabling intelligent processes to be replicated to an ever greater degree. This development means that the use of robots in social environments has also increased rapidly in Europe over recent years.

“Can you imagine a surfer on a surfboard who, while out riding the ocean, realises that he is not only looking out on the exciting challenge of giant waves, but on a massive tsunami?” This is the image used by Daniele Mancini, the Italian ambassador to the Holy See, at a Vatican event in July 2017 examining the ethical questions of artificial intelligence.


Where are robots found today?


A robot is a system that usually consists of three components: a sensor, which gathers information from its surroundings, a processor, which processes that information and an effector, which can interact with the surrounding environment.

Three fundamentally different social spheres clearly illustrate how strongly robotisation is shaping today’s European society.


In the sphere of medicine, huge progress has been made in the use of robots in caring for sick people. For example, the care of dementia sufferers requires a large emotional and time input with the patients. Staff shortages in old people’s homes and hospitals mean that this cannot always be ensured. The use of robotic soft toys and humanoid robots that simulate emotional interaction and attention for patients has therefore been intensively developed and promoted.


In the military sphere, technical developments are so far advanced that they have resulted in lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). This denotes weapon systems uniquely programmed to seek out and attack their targets autonomously, independently of human intervention.


In the field of transport, we are seeing the ever-increasing automation of private cars by means of technical driving aids. These aids are intended to remove the burden from the driver to an ever increasing degree through assistance and even complete replacement. The continuing development of autonomous driving systems on the public streets is of great significance to European industry and future concepts for automated, interlinked driving are evolving.


EU investment in robotisation.


The current European Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020 represents robotics as a particularly fast-growing sector of the market in Europe. Europe is one of the world’s leaders in the development of industrial robots.


The SPARC (partnership for robotics in Europe) programme, the biggest scientific and innovation programme for civil robotics, was founded in 2014 by a partnership between the European Commission, the robotics industry and the academic world.


The aspect of robotics is included in the programme for the current Bulgarian presidency of the European Council, in the chapter on Digitalisation of the Single Market.


Essential ethical questions


A number of ethical questions arise in the many development and approval procedures for robots. Evaluations are made that affect the basis of the prevailing view of people in society.


Who is the subject of robot activities? What ethical evaluation criteria are applied when human emotions are being programmed (e.g. in the case of care robots), or an evaluation of human life, according to who is more or less worthy of protecting (e.g. in the case of automated driving or weapons systems), has to be made? To what extent must and should robotic systems react to economic difficulties (e.g. staff shortages in the case of care of the elderly), with corresponding consequences for the employment market that may be far-reaching? What legal status is accorded to robots? (See Alessandro Calcagno’s article in EuropeInfos).


The advantages and disadvantages of the robotisation of our society must be observed critically and weighed against one another, with the central focus of such considerations being firmly on people. According to Christian anthropology, people were created in the image of God and their human dignity must, therefore, be protected at all costs. This must form the basis for the shaping of society.


Against the background of the highly topical questions that need to be asked when faced with the increasing robotisation of our society, COMECE has established an ad hoc working group on the topic. In dialogue with representatives of the Church, EU politicians and the scientific community, these essential questions are to be discussed. To return to the image presented at the beginning of this article, the major challenge to be covered by the debate lies in preventing the Christian understanding of the human person from being swept away by this tsunami; the right balance must be found so that we can continue surfing on the crest of the wave.


Friederike Ladenburger



Translated from the original text in German

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.