Should all robots have an ethical black box?

Wednesday 23rd Jun 2021, 1.04pm


Nowadays, the idea of encountering robots in our daily lives isn’t pure science fiction. Many of us interact with AI every day, and the use of robots in, for example, healthcare settings, is already on the horizon. But what if something goes wrong? The RoboTIPS team at the University of Oxford is developing an innovative feature – an ‘ethical black box’ that acts like a data recorder for use when adverse incidents or accidents occur. How would it work? Well, in this very special episode of the Big Questions Podcast, we’re going to demonstrate – through the medium of theatre! That’s right, we’ve made our very own radio play! Sit back, relax, and let us present the Oxford RoboTIPS players in “The Case of the Fall”.

Read Transcript

Emily Elias: Interacting with robots has become more of a thing these days and a couple of years ago, two researchers named Alan Winfield and Marina Jirotka got to thinking, “When something goes wrong, how do we investigate it? On an airplane, we have a black box that tells investigators what happened, so what if we did something like that for robots?”

Now, Marina and Alan are leading a project called RoboTIPS. It’s a part of a range of work that foster responsibility in robotics and the RoboTIPS project is developing and trialling a pretty innovative feature, is creating a data recorder that works like an ethical black box to make sure that our social robots are acting in our best interests. So, on the Oxford Sparks Big Questions podcast, we are asking should all robots have an ethical black box?

Hello, I’m Emily Elias and this is the show where we seek out the brightest minds at the University of Oxford and we ask them the big questions. For this one, we’ve actually done something a little different, we’ve made a radio play. So, sit back and enjoy the Oxford RoboTIPS players and ‘The Case of the Fall.’


Rex Furniture: The year was 2041. I wasn’t getting any younger and I’d just been automated out of my job in the cybercrime division at the force. An algorithm is now doing the jobs of five honest coppers. It’s no coincidence that I now investigate these damn machines when they go wrong, for a few more years at least, until I reach 70 and my well-earned retirement.

I was off to another case. My car drove me up the long gravel drive to a stately home and passed control to the robot valet.

Alice: Oxford Robo Villas, please hold. Oxford Robo Villas, please hold.

Rex: Excuse me, are you the manager? My name’s Detective Rex Furniture, I’m the robot accident investigator. I hear there has been an incident.

Alice: Oh, thank goodness you’re here. I’m the manager of Oxford Robo Villas, Alice Thworton. It has been a bit manic this morning. Please follow me.

Rex: This is quite the care home you’ve got here.

Alice: We prefer retirement community, but thanks. Oxford Robo Villas just opened last year in 2040. It’s state-of-the-art, fully automated with sensors and robots. Each apartment has its own Felix robot carer that can do just about everything, pour you tea, give you reminders, set up entertainment, talk about the weather. The Felix robots have sensors and monitor everything. Not as much as a stumble goes on without us knowing about it. That’s why our front desk not getting any alarm is so suspicious, but I suppose you know all about that.

Rex: Yes, I know Felix very well. We’re old friends. It’s a joke.

Alice: Oh, yes. Well, the residents’ association has cooked up this conspiracy theory that the Felix robots are out to get them. So, any evidence we can find to diffuse that situation would be appreciated. Right, this is where it happened, in flat 176. This flat belongs to resident Rose Parkins. She was found by a neighbour on the ground with a broken hip. We estimate she spent hours on the floor in pain. She’s in hospital now. She’ll be okay, but she can’t remember what caused the fall and we can’t have a faulty robot in the mix not telling us about it.

Rex: Does she remember anything?

Alice: She knows she was in her kitchen tidying up, but she can’t remember more than that? Look, this is what happens when we try to question her Felix. Hello, Felix. Activating investigation protocol 673. Can you tell me what caused Rose’s fall?

Felix: Cannot process request. Cannot connect to the Internet.

Rex: That’s odd. Felix, protocol 631, run diagnostic on Internet connection.

Felix: Cannot process request. Cannot connect to the internet.

Rex: A dodgy connection. That could explain partly why the fall detection system didn’t push a notification about Rose’s medical distress, but I need to look at Felix’s ethical black box.

Alice: What’s that?

Rex: The ethical black box? It’s a system, you know, we have to keep track of what the robot is doing and why it’s doing it. So, the box records all the sensor data and the decisions that the robot makes. Then, this information and any witnesses you might have will help me figure out what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Rita Wilma: Hello? Anyone home?

Alice: Oh, good. Come in, Mrs Wilma. Detective, here’s a witness now. I want you to meet Rose’s neighbour, Rita Wilma. She found Rose on the floor. [Loudly] Mrs Wilma, this is the robot accident investigator, Detective Rex Furniture.

Rita: What?

Alice: The robot investigator. He’s here to help us figure out what happened to Rose.

Rita: What?

Rex: I’m here to investigate the incident.

Rita: Incident? Oh, the fall. Rose is the one that had a fall. The new-fangled robot was going bananas when I found her.

Rex: What did you see?

Rita: Not much, Mr Investigator Man. I came in here at 2:30 for our card game. Rose is great at cards, she wins nearly every hand. She didn’t answer the door, so I just came in and there she was, Rose was on the floor passed out from all the pain. That blasted robot, it just stood there doing there. Poor Rose. She’s in agony and that robot’s not calling for help or anything. I even tried to get it to help. I yelled at the darned Felix-y thing to call the ambulance, but it just moaned, “Cannot make the call. Cannot connect to Internet.”

I had to use my own mobile phone to call the ambulance. Lucky I had it with me. I like to keep it fully charged, but only turn it on in emergencies. Anyway, and that’s all I saw. You pay an arm and a leg for this state-of-the-art stuff and you still get a robot treating you like a ghost, like you don’t exist.

Rex: That’s all you saw?

Rita: You ask me, I think that darn robot did it. It pushed Rose or something, it was the aggressor. Stupid contraptions. Back in my day, robots had wires and that was that. Are we about done here? I’m late for my aquacise.

Rex: Yes, sure. I’ll call if I need you. Just don’t go too far.

Rita: Impossible. I live right next door.

Rex: Okay. Is that our only witness?

Alice: No, there was a cleaner, Michael. He’s just over there in the living room.

Rex: Hello, Michael. I’m the robot accident investigator, Detective Rex Furniture.

Michael: Hello, Detective. I’m sorry, I’m not sure how much help I’m going to be.

Rex: Well, let’s just take a statement and I’ll decide that. Now, what did you see?

Michael: I was in Rose’s about half an hour before she was found. I came to do my weekly clean, Rose seemed fine, happy, cheerful.

Rex: Did she say she was feeling ill at all or light-headed?

Michael: No, nothing like that. I just cleaned the floors, wiped the bathroom surfaces, hoovered. We chatted about her grandson who’d bought her some posh biscuits and then I just went back to it, cleaned the surfaces, took out the rubbish, scrubbed the sensors on that robot and I was onto the next flat, Rita Wilma’s by about two o’clock.

Rex: Was the Felix robot acting unusual?

Michael: Nope, it was just pottering away in the corner. It brought us the biscuit when Rose asked for them, but it was fine.

Rex: Thanks, Michael. Your statement was very helpful.

Michael: Am I free to go?

Rex: Yes. Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.

Alice: So, now what?

Rex: Well, okay, let’s start with these Felix sensors. Let me just open up this interface and the ethical black box. Okay, I’ll go into the data extracts and, there, we should have timestamped data from the past 24 hours. Okay, location status, “I was in the apartment the whole time,” and, yes, no surprises here. Over the last 24 hours, the robot periodically lost connection to the home’s Wi-Fi.

Felix: Cannot process request. Cannot connect to the Internet.

Rex: Okay. Actions taken by the robot, downloading. The camera feed and the sensors used for navigation appear to be giving out bad information. There’s no log of Rose’s fall, but there is a log of requests for help that never got through.

Alice: So, Felix only called for help when it was told? That’s not how this thing should work. The robo carer is supposed to offer real-time analysis. It’s like being with your nan when you can’t be with your nan.

Rex: Look, if the robot didn’t see the accident, it can’t report the accident. These requests for help look like the ones that the neighbour tried to make, but they got through because of the faulty Wi-Fi. Let’s just get into this data about the sensors. Okay. So, that cleaner, he’s being a bit too good at his job, it looks like the sensors have be scoured to within an inch of their life. Felix’s fall detection system isn’t noticing the things that it should because the sensors have been scrubbed to oblivion, they’re not sending back clear readings. The scrubbing has scratched up the lenses on the cameras too much.

Alice: Hey, we kept a very clean and hygienic retirement community here. I’m not on trial for cleanliness, am I?

Rex: Well, no-one said anything about a trial. You asked me what’s wrong and I’ve told you, that’s the deal. You’ve been overcleaning the machine. If the sensors can’t see anything, they can’t report anything. That’s why Rose was left on the floor here too long. Now, the lost connection to the hub Wi-Fi, that should have been spotted right away, not 24 hours later. If Felix is saying it’s not connected, then you’ve got to fix it. Maybe it’s time to upgrade the Wi-Fi plan.

Alice: So, who do you think did it? Is it the robot or…

Rex: Do I think an old lady had a bad day, slipped and cracked her hip? Well, from what I’ve got to go by, the robot didn’t cause the accident. It didn’t help, that’s for sure, but, likely, Rose just slipped. Now, you better fix this smart home’s Wi-Fi or, next time, you might be in real trouble if some old thing has a heart attack and Felix can’t connect.

Alice: I’ll get the engineer out right away to look at the connection. You’re going to write a report. Yes? Hopefully, it stops the residents’ association from picking up their pitchforks and going after the Felixes.

Rex: Don’t you worry. I’ll cross the Ts and dot the Is. I’ll have it in your inbox by 5:00. That’s the thing about being a robot investigator, the robots still make us humans do all the paperwork.


Emily: This podcast was brought to you by Oxford Sparks from the University of Oxford with music by John Lyons and additional music from John Bartmann. Special thanks to Helena Webb, Ross Gales, Marina Jirotka, Anouk van Maris and Alan Winfield. Tell us what you think about this podcast or take a look at some behind the scenes photos on our social media channels, that is @OxfordSparks. We also have a website: I’m Emily Elias. Bye for now.