Monday, May 16, 2022

A Draft Open Standard for an Ethical Black Box

About 5 years ago we proposed that all robots should be fitted with the robot equivalent of an aircraft Flight Data Recorder to continuously record sensor and relevant internal status data. We call this an ethical black box (EBB). We argued that an ethical black box will play a key role in the processes of discovering why and how a robot caused an accident, and thus an essential part of establishing accountability and responsibility.

Since then, within the RoboTIPS project, we have developed and tested several model EBBs, including one for an e-puck robot that I wrote about in this blog, and another for the MIRO robot. With some experience under our belts, we have now drafted an Open Standard for the EBB for social robots - initially as a paper submitted to the International Conference on Robots Ethics and Standards. Let me now explain first why we need a standard, and second why it should be an open standard.

Why do we need a standard specification for an EBB? As we outline in our new paper, there are four reasons:
  1. A standard approach to EBB implementation in social robots will greatly benefit accident and incident (near miss) investigations. 
  2. An EBB will provide social robot designers and operators with data on robot use that can support both debugging and functional improvements to the robot. 
  3. An EBB can be used to support robot ‘explainability’ functions to allow, for instance, the robot to answer ‘Why did you just do that?’ questions from its user. And,
  4. a standard allows EBB implementations to be readily shared and adapted for different robots and, we hope, encourage manufacturers to develop and market general purpose robot EBBs.

And why should it be an Open Standard? Bruce Perens, author of The Open Source Definition, outlines a number of criteria an open standard must satisfy, including:

  • Availability: Open standards are available for all to read and implement.
  • Maximize End-User Choice: Open Standards create a fair, competitive market for implementations of the standard.
  • No Royalty: Open standards are free for all to implement, with no royalty or fee.
  • No Discrimination: Open standards and the organizations that administer them do not favor one implementor over another for any reason other than the technical standards compliance of a vendor’s implementation.
  • Extension or Subset: Implementations of open standards may be extended, or offered in subset form.

These are *good* reasons.

The most famous and undoubtedly the most impactful Open Standards are those that specified Internet protocols, such as FTP and email. They were, and still are, called Requests for Comments (RFCs) to reflect the fact that they were - especially in the early years - drafts for revision. As a mark of respect we also regard our draft 0.1 Open Standard for an EBB for Social Robots, as an RFC. You can find draft 0.1 in Annex A of the paper on arXiv here.

Not only is this a first draft, it is also incomplete, covering only the specification of the data and its format, that should be saved in an EBB for social robots. Given that the EBB data specification is at the heart of the EBB standard, we feel that this is sufficient to be opened up for comments and feedback. We will continue to extend the specification, with subsequent versions also published on arXiv.

Please feel free to either submit comments to this blog post (best because everyone can see the comments), or by contacting me directly via email. All constructive comments that result in revisions to the standard will be acknowledged in the standard.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Our first mock social robot accident and investigation

Robot accidents are inevitable. These days the likelihood of serious accidents involving industrial robots is pretty low (but not zero), because such robots are generally inside safety cages. But a newer generation of social robots - robots designed to interact directly with people, including vulnerable elderly people or children - means that accidents are now much more likely. And if we also take into account ethical harms alongside physical harms, then the potential for accidents increases still further. Psychological harms include addiction, over trusting, or deception, and societal harms include privacy violations. For more on these ethical harms see my blog post outlining an ethical risk assessment of a smart robot teddy bear.

It has puzzled me for some years that there has been almost no research on robot accident investigation. In the RoboTIPS project we are addressing this deficit by developing both the technology - which we call an Ethical Black Box (EBB) - and the processes of robot accident investigation. One of the most exciting aspects of RoboTIPS is that we're running a series of mock, i.e. staged, social robot accidents in order to road test the EBB and investigation processes in as close to a real situation as is feasible in a research project. RoboTIPS started in March 2019, but then just as we were ready to trial our first mock accident the Covid pandemic hit, and closed down the lab.

So it was great that last week we finally managed to run the a pilot of our first (of three) mock accident scenarios. The scenario, based around an assisted living robot helping an elderly person to live independently, was sketched out in late 2019, and then - during the lockdown - rehearsed in a number of online events, including a podcast radio play for Oxford Sparks and CSI Robot during the UKRAS Festival of Robotics 2021.

Here is the scenario:

Imagine that your elderly mother, or grandmother, has an assisted living robot to help her live independently at home. The robot is capable of fetching her drinks, reminding her to take her medicine and keeping in touch with family. Then one afternoon you get a call from a neighbour who has called round and sees your grandmother collapsed on the floor. When the paramedics arrive they find the robot wandering around apparently aimlessly. One of its functions is to call for help if your grandmother stops moving, but it seems that the robot failed to do this
To enact this scenario we needed a number of volunteers: one to act as Rose - the subject of the accident, a second as the neighbour who discovers the accident and raises the alarm, a third as the paramedic who attends to Rose, a fourth who acts in the role of the cleaner and a fifth in the role of manager of the group of homes in which Rose lives. We also needed volunteers to act as members of the accident investigation team who are called in to try and discover what happened, why it happened and, if possible, what changes need to be made to how to ensure the accident doesn't happen again.

This is the mock accident taking place in the kitchen of our assisted living studio. Left shows the neighbour, acted by Paul, discovering Ross, acted by Alex, injured on the floor. (Note the chair on its side.) Right is the paramedic, role-played by Luc, attending to Ross. Meanwhile the Pepper robot is moving around somewhat aimlessly.

Our brilliant Research Fellow Dr Anouk van Maris, who organised the whole setup, persuaded five colleagues from the Bristol Robotics Lab. All were male, so Rose became Ross. Only one volunteer: Alex, who played the part of Ross, was fully briefed. The other four role played brilliantly and, although they were briefed on their roles, they were not told what was going to happened to Ross, or the part the Pepper robot played (or maybe didn't play) in the accident. Two colleagues from Oxford, Lars and Keri, kindly volunteered to act as the accident investigators. Lars and Keri also had no prior knowledge of the circumstances of the accident, and had to rely on (i) inspecting the robot and the scene of the accident, (ii) the data from the robot's EBB, and (iii) testimonies from Ross, the neighbour, the paramedic, the cleaner and the facility manager.

Here we see Lars interviewing Medhi, who acted as the house manager, while Ben, acting as the cleaner, waits to be interviewed. Inside the studio Keri is interviewing the neighbour and parademic.

So, what were the findings of our accident investigators? They did very well indeed. Close examination of the EBB data, alongside consideration of the (not always reliable) witness testimony enabled Lars and Keri to correctly deduce the role that the robot played in the accident. They were also able to make several recommendations on operational changes.  But I will not reveal their findings in detail here as we intend to run the same mock accident again soon with a different set of volunteers and - in case any of them should read this blog - I don't want to give the game away!


Very special thanks to Dr Anouk van Maris. Also Dr Pericle Salvini, who worked with Anouk in finalising the detail of the scenario and during the pilot itself. Also, huge thanks to BRL volunteers Dr Alex Smith, Dr Paul Bremner, Dr Luc Wijnen, Mehdi Sobhani and Dr Ben Ward-Cherrier. And last but not least a very big thank you to Dr Lars Kunze, Oxford Robotics Institute and Keri Grieman, Dept of Computer Science, Oxford.

From the left: Pericle, Ben, Lars, Alex, Keri, Medhi, Paul, Anouk, Luc, Lola and me. Pepper is looking nervously at Lola.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Ethics is the new Quality

This morning I took part in the first panel at the BSI conference The Digital World: Artificial Intelligence.  The subject of the panel was AI Governance and Ethics. My co-panelist was Emma Carmel, and we were expertly chaired by Katherine Holden.

Emma and I each gave short opening presentations prior to the Q&A. The title of my talk was Why is Ethical Governance in AI so hard? Something I've thought about alot in recent months.

Here are the slides exploring that question.


And here is what I said.

Early in 2018 I wrote a short blog post with the title Ethical Governance: what is it and who's doing it? Good ethical governance is important because in order for people to have confidence in their AI they need to know that it has been developed responsibly. I concluded my piece by asking for examples of good ethical governance. I had several replies, but none were nominating AI companies.

So. why is it that 3 years on we see some of the largest AI companies on the planet shooting themselves in the foot, ethically speaking? I’m not at all sure I can offer an answer but, in the next few minutes, I would like to explore the question: why is ethical governance in AI so hard? 

But from a new perspective. 

Slide 2

In the early 1970s I spent a few months labouring in a machine shop. The shop was chaotic and disorganised. It stank of machine oil and cigarette smoke, and the air was heavy with the coolant spray used to keep the lathe bits cool. It was dirty and dangerous, with piles of metal swarf cluttering the walkways. There seemed to be a minor injury every day.

Skip forward 40 years and machine shops look very different. 

Slide 3

So what happened? Those of you old enough will recall that while British design was world class – think of the British Leyland Mini, or the Jaguar XJ6 – our manufacturing fell far short. "By the mid 1970s British cars were shunned in Europe because of bad workmanship, unreliability, poor delivery dates and difficulties with spares. Japanese car manufacturers had been selling cars here since the mid 60s but it was in the 1970s that they began to make real headway. Japanese cars lacked the style and heritage of the average British car. What they did have was superb build quality and reliability" [1].

What happened was Total Quality Management. The order and cleanliness of modern machine shops like this one is a strong reflection of TQM practices. 

Slide 4

In the late 1970s manufacturing companies in the UK learned - many the hard way - that ‘quality’ is not something that can be introduced by appointing a quality inspector. Quality is not something that can be hired in.

This word cloud reflects the influence from Japan. The words Japan, Japanese and Kaizen – which roughly translates as continuous improvement – appear here. In TQM everyone shares the responsibility for quality. People at all levels of an organization participate in kaizen, from the CEO to assembly line workers and janitorial staff. Importantly suggestions from anyone, no matter who, are valued and taken equally seriously.

Slide 5

In 2018 my colleague Marina Jirotka and I published a paper on ethical governance in robotics and AI. In that paper we proposed 5 pillars of good ethical governance. The top four are:

  • have an ethical code of conduct, 
  • train everyone on ethics and responsible innovation,
  • practice responsible innovation, and
  • publish transparency reports.

The 5th pillar underpins these four and is perhaps the hardest: really believe in ethics.

Now a couple of months ago I looked again at these 5 pillars and realised that they parallel good practice in Total Quality Management: something I became very familiar with when I founded and ran a company in the mid 1980s [2].

Slide 6 

So, if we replace ethics with quality management, we see a set of key processes which exactly parallel our 5 pillars of good ethical governance, including the underpinning pillar: believe in total quality management.

I believe that good ethical governance needs the kind of corporate paradigm shift that was forced on UK manufacturing industry in the 1970s.

Slide 7

In a nutshell I think ethics is the new quality

Yes, setting up an ethics board or appointing an AI ethics officer can help, but on their own these are not enough. Like Quality, everyone needs to understand and contribute to ethics. Those contributions should be encouraged, valued and acted upon. Nobody should be fired for calling out unethical practices.

Until corporate AI understands this we will, I think, struggle to find companies that practice good ethical governance [3]. 

Quality cannot be ‘inspected in’, and nor can ethics.

Thank you.


[1]    I'm quoting here from the excellent history of British Leyland by Ian Nicholls

[2]    My company did a huge amount of work for Motorola and - as a subcontractor - we became certified software suppliers within their six sigma quality management programme.

[3]    It was competitive pressure that forced manufacturing companies in the 1970s to up their game by embracing TQM. Depressingly the biggest AI companies face no such competitive pressures, which is why regulation is both necessary and inevitable.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Grim Reality of Jobs in Robotics and AI

The reality is that AI is in fact generating a large number of jobs already. That is the good news. The bad news is that they are mostly - to put it bluntly - crap jobs. 

There are several categories of such jobs. 

At the benign end of the spectrum is the work of annotating images, i.e. looking at images and identifying features then labelling them. This is AI tagging. This work is simple and incredibly dull but important because it generates training data sets for machine learning systems. Those systems could be AIs for autonomous vehicles and the images are identifying bicycles, traffic lights etc. The jobs are low-skill low-pay and a huge international industry has grown up to allow the high tech companies to outsource this work to what have been called white collar sweatshops in China or developing countries. 

A more skilled version of this kind of job are translators who are required to ‘assist’ natural language translation systems who get stuck on a particular phrase or word.

And there is another category of such jobs that are positively dangerous: content moderators. These are again outsourced by companies like Facebook, to contractors who employ people to filter abusive, violent or illegal content. This can mean watching video clips and making a decision on whether the clip is acceptable or not (and apparently the rules are complex), over and over again, all day. Not surprisingly content moderators suffer terrible psychological trauma, and often leave the job burned out after a year or two. Publicly Facebook tells us this is important work, yet content moderators are paid a fraction of what staffers working on the company campus earn. So not that important.

But jobs created by AI and automation can also be physically dangerous. The problem with real robots, in warehouses for instance, is that like AIs they are not yet good enough to do everything in the (for the sake of argument) Amazon warehouse. So humans have to do the parts of the workflow that robots cannot yet do and - as we know from press reports - these humans are required to work super fast and behave, in fact, as if they are robots. And perhaps the most dehumanizing part of the job for such workers is that, like the content moderators (and for that matter Uber drivers or Deliveroo riders), their workflows are managed by algorithms, not humans.

We roboticists used to justifiably claim that robots would do jobs that are too dull, dirty and dangerous for humans. It is now clear that working as human assistants to robots and AIs in the 21st century is dull, and both physically and/or psychologically dangerous. One of the foundational promises of robotics has been broken. This makes me sad, and very angry.

The text above is a lightly edited version of my response to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) request for comments on a draft horizon scanning article. The final piece How technology is accelerating changes in the way we work was published a few weeks ago.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Energy Cost of Online Living in Lockdown

Readers of his blog will know that one of the many things ethical I worry about is the energy cost of AI. As part of the work I'm doing with Claudia Pagliari and her National Expert Group on Digital Ethics for Scotland I've been looking also into the energy costs of what is - for many of us - everyday digital life in lockdown. I don't yet have a complete set of results but what I have found so far is surprising - and not in a good way.

So far I've looked into the energy costs of (i) uploading to the cloud, (ii) streaming video (i.e. from iPlayer or Netflix), and (iii) video conferencing.

(i) Uploading to the cloud. This 2017 article in the Stanford Magazine explains that when you save a 1 Gbyte file – that’s about 1 hour of video - to your laptop’s disk drive the energy cost is 0.000005 kWh, or 5 milliWatt hours. Save the same file to the Cloud and the energy cost is between 3 and 7 kWh. For comparison your electric kettle burns about 3 kWh. This mean that the energy cost of saving to the cloud is about a million times higher than to your local disk drive. 

The huge difference makes sense when you consider that there is a very complex international network of switches, routers and exchange hubs, plus countless amplifiers maintaining signal strength over long distance transmission lines. All of this consumes energy. Then add a slice of the energy costs of the server farm.

(ii) Streaming video. This article in The Times from May 2019 makes the claim that streaming a 2 hour HD movie from Netflix incurs the same energy cost as boiling 10 kettles (based on the sustainable computing research of Mike Hazas). To estimate  how much energy that equates to we need to guess how full the kettle is. A half full 3kWh kettle will take about 2 minutes to boil, and consume therefore 100 Watts. Do that 10 times and you've burned 1kW. A DVD player typically consumes 8 Watts, so streaming costs 125 times more energy.

Again this makes sense against uploading to the cloud, except that here you are downloading from Netflix servers. A 2 hour HD movie is alot of data, around 10GBytes, so 10 times more than the case for (i) above.

(iii) Video conferencing. This post on David Mytton's excellent blog explores the energy cost of Zoom meetings in some detail. David estimates that a 1 hour video zoom call with 6 participants generates between 5 and 15GB of data and that the data transfer consumes between 0.07 – 0.22kWh of electricity. Using our benchmark of kettles boiled this is pretty modest - at most less than one tenth of the energy cost. 

However this estimate makes 2 assumptions: first that you are connected via cable or fixed line - which here in the UK costs 0.015kWh per GByte. A mobile connection costs about seven times that at 0.1kWh/GB. And second, this estimate measures only the energy costs of data transmission and fails to take account of the energy costs of Zoom's data centres, which - if (i) and (ii) here are anything to go by, could be significant, especially since there aren't any in the UK and the default servers are in the US.

As this article on the Zoom blog explains, Zoom calls are not peer to peer. The video from each participant is streamed first to a zoom server then broadcast to every other person on the call. As David Mytton says Zoom don't release information on the overall energy costs of calls. I strongly suspect that if server energy costs were factored in they would be in line with cases (i) and (ii) above. Even so, I feel sure that David Mytton's overall conclusion remains true: that the energy cost of Zoom meetings is significantly lower than all but local or regional travel.


I would like to see networking services like cloud storage, video on demand and video conferencing publish a meaningful energy cost. When we buy packaged food from the supermarket we expect to read the calorific energy value of each item, broken down into fat, salt and so on.  It would be great if every online transaction, from sending an email, to watching a movie revealed its energy/carbon cost. Not just for energy geeks like me, but to remind all of us that the Digital Economy is *very* energy hungry.

I would welcome any additional data which either adds to the above (especially the energy costs for smaller online transactions like tweets, emails or card payments), or shows that the estimates above are wrong. 

Related blog posts:

On Sustainable Robotics
Energy and Exploitation: AIs dirty secrets
What's wrong with Consumer Electronics? 


Monday, March 22, 2021

On Sustainable Robotics

The climate emergency brooks no compromise: every human activity or artefact is either part of the solution or it is part of the problem. 

I've worried about the sustainability of consumer electronics for some time, and, more recently, the shocking energy costs of big AI. But the climate emergency has also caused me to think hard about the sustainability of robots. In recent papers we have defined responsible robotics as

... the application of Responsible Innovation in the design, manufacture, operation, repair and end-of-life recycling of robots, that seeks the most benefit to society and the least harm to the environment.

I will wager that few robotics manufacturers - even the most responsible - pay much attention to repairability and environmental impact. And, I'm ashamed to say, very little robotics research is focused on the development of sustainable robots. A search on google scholar throws up just a handful of great papers detailing work on upcycled and sustainable robots (2018), sustainable robotics for smart cities (2018), and sustainable soft robots (2020).

I was then delighted when, a few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Michael Fisher, drafted a proposal for a new standard on Sustainable Robotics. The proposal received strong support from the BSI robotics committee. Here is the formal notice requesting comments on Michael's proposal: BS XXXX Guide to the Sustainable Design and Application of Robotic Systems. Anyone can comment (although you do need to register first). The deadline is 1 April 2021. 

So what would make a robot sustainable? In my view it would have to be:

  1. Made from sustainable materials. This means the robot should, as far as possible, use recycled materials (plastics or metals), or biodegradable materials like wood. Any new materials should be ethically sourced. 
  2. Low energy. The robot should be designed to use as little energy as possible. It should have energy saving modes. If an outdoor robot then it should use solar cells and/or hydrogen cells when they become small enough for mobile robots. Battery powered robots should always be rechargeable. 
  3. Repairable. The robot would be designed for ease of repair, using modular, replaceable parts as much as possible - especially the battery. Additionally the manufacturers should provide a repair manual so that local workshops could fix most faults. 
  4. Recyclable. Robots will eventually come to the end of their useful life, and if they cannot be repaired or recycled we risk them being dumped in landfill. To reduce this risk the robot should be designed to make it easy to re-use parts, such as electronics and motors, and re-cycle batteries, metals and plastics.

These are, for me, the four fundamental requirements, but there are others. The BSI proposal adds the environmental effects of deployment (it is unlikely we would consider a sustainable robot designed to spray pesticides as truly sustainable), or of failure in the field. Also the environmental effect of maintenance; cleaning materials, for instance. The proposal also looks toward sustainable, upcyclable robots as part of a circular economy.

This is Ecobot III, developed some years ago by colleagues in the Bristol Robotics Lab's Bio-energy group. The robot runs on electricity extracted from biomass by 48 microbial fuel cells (the two concentric brick coloured rings). The robot is 90% 3D printed, and the plastic is recyclable.






I would love to see, in the near term, not only a new standard on Sustainable Robotics as a guide (and spur) for manufacturers, but the emergence of Sustainable Robotics as a thriving new sub-discipline in robotics.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Back to Robot Coding part 3: testing the EBB

In part 2 a few weeks ago I outlined a Python implementation of the ethical black box. I described the key data structure - a dictionary which serves as both specification for the type of robot, and the data structure used to deliver live data to the EBB. I also mentioned the other key robot specific code: 

# Get data from the robot and store it in data structure spec
def getRobotData(spec):

Having reached this point I needed a robot - and a way of communicating with it - so that I could both write getRobotData(spec) and test the EBB. But how to do this? I'm working from home during lockdown, and my e-puck robots are all in the lab. Then I remembered that the excellent robot simulator V-REP (now called CoppeliaSim) has a pretty good e-puck model and some nice demo scenes. V-REP also offers multiple ways of communicating between simulated robots and external programs (see here). One of them - TCP/IP sockets - appeals to me as I've written sockets code many times, for both real-world and research applications.  Then a stroke of luck: I found that a team at Ensta-Bretagne had written a simple demo which shows how to connect a Python program to a robot in V-REP, using sockets. So, first I got that demo running and figured out how it works, then used the same approach for a simulated e-puck and the EBB. Here is a video capture of the working demo.

So, what's going on in the demo? The visible simulation views in the V-REP window show an e-puck robot following a black line which is blocked by both a potted plant and an obstacle constructed from 3 cylinders. The robot has two behaviours: line following and wall following. The EBB requests data from the e-puck robot once per second, and you can see those data in the Python shell window. Reading from left to right you will see first the EBB date and time stamp, then robot time botT, then the 3 line following sensors lfSe, followed by the 8 infra red proximity sensors irSe. The final two fields show the joint (i.e. wheel) angles jntA, in degrees, then the motor commands jntD. By watching these values as the robot follows its line and negotiates the two obstacles you can see how the line and infra red sensor values change, resulting in updated motor commands.

Here is the code - which is custom written both for this robot and the means of communicating with it - for requesting data from the robot.

# Get data from the robot and store it in spec[]
# while returning one of the following result codes

def getRobotData(spec):

    # This function connects, via TCP/IP to an ePuck robot in V-REP

    # create a TCP/IP socket and connect it to the simulated robot
    sock = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
        return CANNOT_CONNECT

    sock.settimeout(0.1) # set connection timeout
    # pack a dummy packet that will provoke data in response
    #   this is, in effect, a 'ping' to ask for a data record
    strSend = struct.pack('fff',1.0,1.0,1.0)
    sock.sendall(strSend) # and send it to V-REP

    # wait for data back from V-REP
    #   expect a packet with 1 time, 2 joints, 2 motors,   
    #   3 line sensors and 8 irSensors. All floats because V-REP
    #   total packet size = 16 x 4 = 64 bytes
    data = b''
    nch_rx = 64 # expect this many bytes from  V-REP 
        while len(data) < nch_rx:
            data += sock.recv(nch_rx)
        return SOCKET_ERROR

    # unpack the received data
    if len(data) == nch_rx:
        # V-REP packs and unpacks in floats only so...
        vrx = struct.unpack('ffffffffffffffff',data)

        # now move data from vrx[] into spec[], while rounding floats
        spec["botTime"] = [ round(vrx[0],2) ] 
        spec["jntDemands"] = [ round(vrx[1],2), round(vrx[2],2) ]
        spec["jntAngles"] = [ round(vrx[3]*180.0/math.pi,2)
                              round(vrx[4]*180.0/math.pi,2) ]
        spec["lfSensors"] = [ round(vrx[5],2), 
                              round(vrx[6],2), round(vrx[7],2) ]
        for i in range(8):
            spec["irSensors"][i] = round(vrx[8+i],3)       
        result = ROBOT_DATA_OK
        result = BAD_DATA

    return result

The structure of this function is very simple: first create a socket then open it, then make a dummy packet and send it to V-REP to request EBB data from the robot. Then, when a data packet arrives, unpack it into spec, then close the socket before returning. The most complex part of the code is data wrangling.

Would a real EBB collect data in this way? Well if the EBB is embedded in the robot then probably not. Communication between the robot controller and the EBB might be via ROS messages, or even more directly, by - for instance - allowing the EBB code to access a shared memory space which contains the robot's sensor inputs, command outputs and decisions. But an external EBB, either running on a local server or in the cloud, would most likely use TCP/IP to communicate with the robot, so getRobotData() would look very much like the example here. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Back to Robot Coding part 2: the ethical black box

In the last few days I started some serious coding. The first for 20 years, in fact, when I built the software for the BRL LinuxBots. (The coding I did six months ago doesn't really count as I was only writing or modifying small fragments of Python).

My coding project is to start building an ethical black box (EBB), or to be more accurate, a module that will allow a software EBB to be incorporated into a robot. Conceptually the EBB is very simple, it is a data logger - the robot equivalent of an aircraft Flight Data Recorder, or an automotive Event Data Recorder. Nearly five years ago I made the case, with Marina Jirotka, that all robots (and AIs) should be fitted with an EBB as standard. Our argument is very simple: without an EBB, it will be more or less impossible to investigate robot accidents, or near-misses, and in a recent paper on Robot Accident Investigation we argue that with the increasing use of social robots accidents are inevitable and will need to be investigated. 

Developing and demonstrating the EBB is a foundational part of our 5-year EPSRC funded project RoboTIPS, so it's great to be doing some hands-on practical research. Something I've not done for awhile.

Here is a block diagram showing the EBB and its relationship with a robot controller.

As shown here the data flows from the robot controller to the EBB are strictly one way. The EBB cannot and must not interfere with the operation of the robot. Coding an EBB for a particular robot would be straightforward, but I have set a tougher goal: a generic EBB module (i.e. library of functions) that would - with some inevitable customisation - apply to any robot. And I set myself the additional challenge of coding in Python, making use of skills learned from the excellent online Codecademy Python 2 course.

There are two elements of the EBB that must be customised for a particular robot. The first is the data structure used to fetch and save the sensor, actuator and decision data in the diagram above. Here is an example from my first stab at an EBB framework, using the Python dictionary structure:

# This dictionary structure serves as both 
# 1 specification of the type of robot, and each data field that
#   will be logged for this robot, &
# 2 the data structure we use to deliver live data to the EBB

# for this model let us create a minimal spec for an ePuck robot
epuckSpec = {
    # the first field *always* identifies the type of robot plus            # version and serial nos
    "robot" : ["ePuck", "v1", "SN123456"],
    # the remaining fields are data we will log, 
    # starting with the motors
    # ..of which the ePuck has just 2: left and right
    "motors" : [0,0],
    # then 8 infra red sensors
    "irSensors" : [0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0],
    # ..note the ePuck has more sensors: accelerometer, camera etc, 
    # but this will do for now
    # ePuck battery level
    "batteryLevel" : [0],
    # then 1 decision code - i.e. what the robot is doing now
    # what these codes mean will be specific to both the robot 
    # and the application
    "decisionCode" : [0]

Whether a dictionary is the best way of doing this I'm not 100% sure, being new to Python (any thoughts from experienced Pythonistas welcome).

The idea is that all robot EBBs will need to define a data structure like this. All must contain the first field "robot", which names the robot's type, its version number and serial number. Then the following fields must use keywords from a standard menu, as needed. As shown in this example each keyword is followed by a list of placeholder values - in which the number of values in the list reflects the specification of the actual robot. The ePuck robot, for instance, has 2 motors and 8 infra-red sensors. 

The final field in the data structure is "decisionCode". The values stored in this field would be both robot and applications specific; for the ePuck robot these might be 1 = 'stop', 2 = 'turn left', 3 = 'turn right' and so on. We could add another value for a parameter, so the robot might decide for instance to turn left 40 degrees, so "decisionCode" : [2,40]. We could also add a 'reason' field, which would save the high-level reason for the decision, as in "decisionCode" : [2,40,"avoid obstacle right"] noting that the decision field could be a string as shown here, or a numeric code.

As I hope I have shown here the design of this data structure and its fields is at the heart of the EBB.

The second element of the EBB library that must be written for the particular robot and application, is the function which fetches data from the robot

# Get data from the robot and store it in data structure spec
def getRobotData(spec):
How this function is implemented will vary hugely between robots and robot applications. For our Linux enhanced ePucks with WiFi connections this is likely to be via a TCP/IP client-server, with the server running on the robot, sending data following a request from the client  getRobotData(ePuckspec) For simpler setups in which the EBB module is folded into the robot controller then accessing the required data within getRobotData() should be very straightforward.

The generic part of the EBB module will define the class EBB, with methods for both initialising the EBB and saving a new data record to the EBB. I will cover that in another blog post.

Before closing let me add that it is our intention to publish the specification of the EBB, together with the model EBB code, once it had been fully tested, as open source.

Any comments or feedback would be much appreciated.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

New IET online course on Robot Ethics goes live

Big day today. My online course on Robot Ethics has been launched on the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Academy web pages. The aim of the course is to give a comprehensive introduction to robot ethics and responsible robotics, and machine ethics. As well as ethical principles the course introduces powerful practical tools including Ethically Aligned Design (also called values driven design), emerging new ethical standards including BS8611 and the powerful method Ethical Risk Assessment,  IEEE 7001 on Transparency, and equally essential Ethical Governance, while showing how ethics, standards and regulation are linked. The course took the best part of 18 months to write, not least because of the strict formatting and style required for IET online courses. For academics, writing courses normally means just creating slides, but - to my surprise - IET online courses are narrated by professional voice actors, so I had to write the narration for each slide. Plus, alot of tests to help students to self-test their understanding.

The course is organized as 10 one hour units, each with several modules, and tests at the end of each module and at the end of the unit. Here is the outline syllabus.

Unit 1: What is Robot Ethics?

This unit defines what we mean by an intelligent robot, robot ethics and ethical robots.

Module 1: Defines what we mean by a robot and robot autonomy, while explaining the difference between first wave (i.e. industrial) robots and second wave (i.e. social) robots
Module 2: Defines intelligence and clarifies the distinction between robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Module 3: Robot/AI ethics: ethics for humans and responsible robotics
Module 4: Machine ethics: ethics for robots

Unit 2: Inspired by Asimov – The EPSRC Principles of Robotics

This unit focuses on the influential EPSRC Principles of Robots.

Module 1: Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, their limitations, and their contribution to robot ethics
Module 2: Why robot ethics are so important today
Module 3: The EPSRC Principles of Robotics
Module 4: Responsible Robotics

Unit 3: An Overview of Ethical Frameworks for AI

This unit looks at some of the more recent ethical frameworks proposed for robotics and AI.

Module 1: A Proliferation of Principles. A helicopter view of all of the ethical frameworks for robotics and artificial intelligence published since Asimov’s laws of robotics. Including what an ethical framework is and what it does and does not offer.
Module 2: The Future of Life Institute Asilomar principles for beneficial AI
Module 3: The UNI Global Union Top 10 Principles for Ethical AI
Module 4: The European Commission’s High Level Expert Group on AI Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI
Module 5: The OECD Principles of AI
Module 6: Summary: comparing ethical frameworks and their limitations 

Unit 4: Ethical Standards in Robotics

This unit explores emerging ethical standards.

Module 1: Standards, an introduction
Module 2: An Ethical Standard - British Standard BS8611:2016 A Guide to the Ethical Design of Robots and Robotic Systems
Module 3: Ethical Risk Assessment based on BS8611, including a Case Study
Module 4: Standards in Practice

Unit 5: Ethically Aligned Design in Robotics and AI

This unit introduces the IEEE global ethics initiative and ethically aligned design.

Module 1: The IEEE Global Ethics Initiative
Module 2: The IEEE General Principles
Module 3: Ethically Aligned Design
Module 4: The P70XX Human Standards

Unit 6: Transparency and Explainability in Robotics and AI

This Unit explores transparency, and the related topic of accident investigation.

Module 1: Introduction to Transparency and Explainability
Module 2: The IEEE P7001 Standard on Transparency in Autonomous Systems
Module 3: Robot Accident Investigation, an introduction

Unit 7: Ethical Governance for Robotics

This unit focuses on ethical governance for robotics.

Module 1: How do we trust our technology?
Module 2: A Roboethics Roadmap, linking ethics, standards and regulation
Module 3: Robotics Law and Regulation, with examples from Drones, Autonomous Vehicles and Assisted Living robots
Module 4: A framework for ethical governance

Unit 8: Machine Ethics 1 – An Asimovian Ethical Robot

In this unit, we will explore machine ethics, and ask the question: is it possible to build a moral machine?

Module 1: A thought experiment: is it possible to build a moral machine?
Module 2: The Consequence Engine
Module 3: Experimental trials of an Asimovian ethical robot

Unit 9: Machine Ethics 2 – Approaches, Risks and Governance

Module 1: Categories of ethical agency
Module 2: Approaches to building ethical robots
Module 3: The risks of ethical robots
Module 4: The governance of ethical machines

Unit 10: Final Assessment


Wednesday, December 30, 2020


    Now it’s personal. I’ve just had a phone call from my mom.  Fine, you might think, but it’s sure as hell not fine. She’s been dead 5 years.

    So, I’m a member of the LAPD CSI assigned to cyber crime. The case that landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago started as a complaint that folk were getting phone calls from dead relatives. At first we thought it was a joke. But after a couple of Hollywood celebs and the mayor of Pasadena started getting calls too – it got real serious real fast. The mayor called my chief: he was furious that someone was impersonating his eldest daughter: she died a couple of years ago in a freak surfing accident. It was only when the chief explained that it wasn’t a person that had called him, but an AI programmed to impersonate his daughter, that he calmed down a bit. Just a bit mind: according to my boss what he said went along the lines of “find out who these sons-of-bitches programmers are, I’m gonna sue the hell out of them”.

    Deepfakes have been around for 5 years or so. Mostly videos doctored with some famous actor’s face substituted for a slightly less famous face. Tom Cruise as spiderman – that kinda thing; mostly harmless.  After the mayor’s call the chief called a departmental meeting. She explained that – according to the DA – impersonation is not a misdemeanour: “Hell if it was that would make the whole entertainment industry a criminal enterprise.” That caused a cynical chuckle across the room. She went on, “nor is creating a fake AI based on a real person.” “Of course people are upset and angry – who wouldn’t be when they get a call from someone dear to them who also happens to be deceased – but upsetting people isn’t a crime.” 

    She looked at me. “Frank, what have you got so far?” “Not much chief”, I replied, “each call seems to be coming from a different number – my guess is they’re one-time numbers”. “Any idea who’s behind this?” she asked. “No – but since no-one is demanding money – my guess would be AI genius college kids doing this for a joke, or maybe their dissertations.” “Of course” I added, “they would need to be scraping the personal data from somewhere to construct the fakes, but so much hacked data is around on the dark web that wouldn’t be too hard.” “Ok good”, she said, “start talking to some college professors”. 

    Two days later I had the call.

    “Hello Frankie, it’s mom.”

    “Mom? But you’ve been gone 5 years.”

    “I know son. I just wanted to call to tell you I love you.”

    “But. Goddam. You sound just like Mom.”

    “Aren’t you pleased to hear from me Frankie?”

    “Yes... No. This isn’t right.”

    “How is Josie doing? And Taylor – she must’ve started college by now?”

    “Yes Josie is good, and Taylor’s ... no dammit I’m not gonna talk to a computer program.”

    “Aw, don’t be mad with your Mom.”

    At that point I hung up. But Jesus it was hard. I knew it wasn’t my Mom but the temptation to stay on the call just to hear her voice again was just overwhelming. It took me awhile to calm down. It’s only in the last year that I started to get over her passing. That call brought it all back: the pain, the anger she had been taken too soon. We were real close.

    This fake was good – they had my Mom’s voice down to a tee – but how? Mom was a high school teacher not a celebrity. She wasn’t big on social media. Sure she used Facebook – who doesn’t – but that doesn’t record voice. Just about everything else mind – that’s where they would have gotten family names and relationships. Then I remembered that we bought her one of those smart speakers a year or so before she passed away. Arthritis made it hard for her to move around so we put in the speaker so she could make voice calls, listen to music or turn on the TV just by asking. She loved it. 

    Then the story broke in the press. Twitter was full of it: #heavencalling and #deadphone were just two of the hashtags; none of them even remotely funny to me. The pundits were all over the newscasts: AI experts gleefully explaining the technology while expressing a dishonest kind of smirking dismay “...of course no AI professional could possibly condone this kind of misuse.” Obviously they hadn’t had the call. 

    Of course the news channels also interviewed folk who had been called. Some were outraged, but more were very happy that they had been ‘chosen’ for a call from heaven. One lady was so pleased to have had a call from her late husband: “It was so wonderful to hear from Jimmy – to talk about old times and know that he’s happy in heaven”. Well I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The church pastors they interviewed were indignant. “The devil’s work” was the general tone. One even described it as ‘artificial witchcraft’.  They had good reason to be unhappy, seeing as they have exclusive rights to the intercession business.

    A day later I had an email back from one of the AI Profs at Caltech. I called him straight away and he told me he had a pretty good idea who might be behind this “deeply unethical AI” as he put it. A couple of star students had been working on what one of them had told him was a ‘really cool NLP project’. NLP – that’s natural language processing. He told me that he had already disabled their accounts on the Caltech supercomputer. This kind of real-time conversational AI uses huge amounts of computing power.

    A few hours later the chief and I are in the Dean’s office with the Professor and his two students. In the students I saw a younger me: bright but with that na├»ve innocence that blesses only those for whom nothing bad has ever happened. 

    My chief explained to these two young men that, since no crime had been committed, we would not be pressing charges. But, she stressed, “What you did was not without consequence. The mayor and his wife were deeply distressed to receive a call from someone they thought was their deceased daughter. And my colleague here was mad as hell when he had a call from his late Mom.” From the look in their eyes they obviously had no idea they had set up a heaven call to a cop.  

    Then the Dean gave them one hell of a dressing down. At one point one of the students tried to interject that some of the recipients of the heaven calls had been very happy to be called, at which point the Prof stopped him immediately. “No. Regardless of how people reacted, your AI was a deception. And an egregious one too, as it exploited the vulnerability of grief.” Then he added, “Something that in time you too will experience.” The Dean told them that they should count themselves very lucky that the school had decided not to expel them, on condition that they personally apologise to everyone who had received a heaven call, starting right now with Officer Frank Aaronavitch here. After a very gracious apology, which I accepted, the Prof added that he would be requiring them to submit year papers on the ethics of their heaven calling AI.

    Six months have passed. Heaven calling blew over pretty quickly. Then I noticed a piece in the tech press about a new start up – Heavenly AI – looking for VC. Sure enough the two founders are the same students we saw in the Deans’s office at Caltech. The article claims the company has an ethics driven business model. Great I thought. Then cynical me kicked in; give it six months and these guys are gonna get bought out by Facebook. Heaven forbid.

Previous stories: 

The Gift (2016) 
Word Perfect (2020)