Would you agree to your court case being decided upon by a robot judge? In surveys in which people were asked precisely this question, the highest proportion of positive reactions came from Russia, according to Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist.

One of the most high-profile discussions about robot-related ethics has focused on driverless technology. Photo: Sk.ru.

Robotic judges are just one of the ideas appearing on the horizon as robots in a multitude of forms – from vacuum cleaners to home assistants – become an increasing part of everyday life. As the role played by robotics and artificial intelligence grows, so do the ethical questions surrounding them, from how to compensate workers replaced with robots to liability in accidents involving driverless cars and the use of drones and other robotic technology for military purposes.

Robots and society was one of the topics of discussion at the annual Skolkovo Robotics conference and exhibition held at the Skolkovo Technopark on Friday, where international experts discussed burning issues for humans, including the trending topic of robots replacing people in some professions.

“When we talk about jobs in which people will be replaced, they’re usually described as low-paid, low-qualified jobs,” said Schulmann, an associate professor of public administration at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.  

Political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann speaking during the panel discussion on robots and society at Skolkovo Robotics. Photo: Sk.ru.

In fact, she said, the jobs that can be designated to robots are those that can be summed up in a formula or reduced to an algorithm, in which there is no room for creativity or spontaneity.

“And that’s not actually the work of cleaners, nannies or even drivers - that’s the work of officials,” she told the Robotics conference. The idea of impartial robot judges and robot officials is already being discussed by political scientists, she said. 

The beginnings of this trend are already visible, said Dmitry Peskov, head of young professionals at the government’s Agency for Strategic Initiatives, citing automated traffic violation cameras that he said issue fines to drivers without requiring the input of a human police officer.

Robots on the roads

Roads and traffic are the subject of much debate over robot ethics, including an ongoing discussion over how driverless cars should be programmed to act in the event of an unavoidable crash: which lives should the system be programmed to prioritise when several parties are involved?

Last year, a Mercedes Benz representative prompted an outcry when he appeared to suggest that the priority of the driverless vehicle it is developing would be the safety of the driver and passengers rather than a pedestrian. Though the company later clarified that its vehicles were not being programmed to prioritise some lives over others, this issue is not going to go away, and legislation must be developed accordingly, said Olga Uskova, president of the Cognitive Technologies group of companies, a Russian software corporation.

“This decision [by Mercedes Benz] was based on financial interests,” she said: of course the company is going to protect its customers – the buyers of its car – over other people.

Another idea related to global roboticisation is that of the universal basic income, in which people would receive an income each month, regardless of whether or not they work. This idea is often floated as a solution to the problem of people losing their jobs because they are being replaced by robots. Its proponents include the prominent U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk.

“The problem is that it’s not clear how this communist future will work: who will pay these incomes? The state, with funds from roboticised production, for example. But what will the political system look like, consisting of the state on one hand, and these recipients on the other? How will it work – how will democracy work under this mechanism? Who will people vote for, and why? Social science doesn’t yet have the answers to these questions,” said Schulmann.

Legislation lag

Russia has the ideal conditions for the growing roboticisation of industry, said Uskova. “We have a huge territory, loads of resources and not many people. It’s the perfect place for roboticisation,” she told the conference.

KB Avrora is one of several Skolkovo Foundation residents working on driverless technology. Photo: Sk.ru.

But so far, Russia has been in no rush to introduce the legislation required to accommodate robotic systems. Unlike in parts of the U.S. and some European countries, there is currently no legal framework for testing driverless vehicles on public roads in Russia, though the technology is being tested in enclosed territories, including the Skolkovo innovation city.

Given that officials could be among the first to lose their jobs to robots, they will resist technology until the last, believes Schulmann.

“In Russia, lawmakers are inclined to think in terms of bans,” she told Sk.ru on the sidelines of the conference. “Anything new scares our political machine, and the simplest solution is a ban,” she said, citing the example of genetically modified organisms, which were outlawed in Russia last year.

“The state’s handling of medical issues is a model for how the state machine will react to future tech innovations. In the medical field, ethical questions concerning genetics, health and food are clearly articulated. Ethical questions regarding drones are only on the horizon,” said Schulmann.

“For now, we prefer to ban that which we don’t understand. Paradoxically, this creates new opportunities for Russia, because the fact that the country is officially free from GMO is for many agricultural producers a plus,” she said. In 2015, President Vladimir Putin told the Russian parliament that Russia should become the world’s largest supplier of organic food.

Schulmann does not believe that Russia risks being left behind in the tech revolution as a result of official caution in introducing legislation to accommodate some areas of innovation.

“I’m against this paradigm of lagging behind, this idea that we have to jump urgently onto some train that will otherwise leave without us: I think globalization makes getting left behind as impossible as isolation,” she told Sk.ru.

“The future will come to us in any case. That's exactly the problem: we can't escape the future, we can only try to carve out our place in it.”