South Korea is drawing up a code of ethics to stop humans misusing robots or vice versa officials announced on Wednesday.
The government expects to issue a "Robot Ethics Charter" for manufacturers and users in April 2007. Its key considerations are preventing illegal use, protecting data acquired by robots and establishing clear identification and traceability of machines.
But the charter will also cover ethical standards to be programmed into robots, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy says. A five-member task force including experts, futurists and a science fiction writer began working on the code in November 2006.
"The government plans to set ethical guidelines concerning the roles and functions of robots, as robots are expected to develop strong intelligence in the near future," the ministry said in a statement. As the South Korean population ages, various service robots will come into use, eventually becoming "key companions to human beings", it added.
However, one robotics researcher warns that it remains a mystery whether machines will ever be able to understand ethics in the same way as humans.
"Imagine if some people treat androids as if the machines were their wives," Park Hye-Young of the ministry's code of ethics team says. "Others may get addicted to interacting with them just as many internet users get hooked on the cyberworld."
Hye-Young adds that the government's guidelines will reflect the "Three Laws of Robotics" put forward by science fiction author Isaac Asimov. These are:
1. A robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm
2. A robot must obey orders given by a human unless these conflict with the first law
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as this does not conflict with the first or second law
Max Lungarella, a robotics researcher at the University of Tokyo in Japan told New Scientist that rapid progress in the field has made robot ethics a hot topic. But he adds that it is still unclear whether an ethical code could ever be programmed into a robot effectively.
"Good and bad depends on the context and on the situation," Lungarella says. "One issue is to program robots to be secure and dependable. It's quite another to have robots that 'know' what is good and what is bad, or that can act on an intrinsic shared value system."
South Korea is currently developing various types of robot. In September 2006, the government unveiled a machinegun-toting sentry robot designed to patrol the heavily fortified border with North Korea.
The Korea Institute of Science and Technology, in Seoul, is also working on robot caregivers that can perform simple chores and monitor the health of elderly people. The project is due for completion in 2013. The same institute developed EveR-2 Muse, a robotic "woman" that can speak and reproduce various facial expressions.