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Ethics in Social Robotics Readings

SoSe 2019, Blockcourse, 2 SWS (ECTS: 4)

14.15h - 17.15h  on 11, 13, 18, 20, 25, 27 June & 2 July

CARTESIUM Building, First floor room 1.41

WiSe 2018/2019, Blockcourse, 2 SWS (ECTS: 4) 
10h-13h on 25, 27 February and 1, 4, 6, 8, 11, 13 March 2019
CARTESIUM Building, Groundfloor room 0.41

Universität Bremen
Language: English


The main objective of this seminar/blockcourse is to use the science fiction novel "The Vestigial Heart: A novel of the robot age" (The MIT Press) written by Prof. Carme Torras (CSIC/UPC, Barcelona) to discuss ethical issues as the following:

  • Would robots primarily create or destroy jobs?
  • How does robot appearance influence public acceptance? What are the advantages and dangers of robots simulating emotions?
  • Should public trust and confidence in robots be enforced? If so, how? Could robots be used to control people?
  • Could robot decision-making undermine human freedom and dignity? Is it acceptable for robots to behave as emotional surrogates? If so, in which cases? Could robots be used as therapists for the mentally disabled?
  • Are there limits to what a robot can teach? What are the values robot teacher would transmit and encourage? What should be the relationship between robot teachers and human teachers?
  • What is the boundary between helping and creating dependency? Is it admissible that robots could be designed to generate addiction?
  • When should humanity wellbeing prevail over the privacy of personal data?

As Neal Stephenson [2011] mentions: “What science fiction stories can do better than almost anything else is to provide not just an idea for some specific technical innovation, but also to supply a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives”. And Torras’ novel is a masterpiece that will make us travel into an intriguing very technological future.

This course is intended for teaching at technological degrees such as computer science and engineering, but also in philosophy, psychology, political science, cognitive science, and linguistics, which all have ethics-related topics in their curricula.


This seminar/blockcourse provides an introduction to Roboethics, which is defined by Veruggio et al. [2011] as: “the subfield of applied ethics studying both the positive and negative implications of robotics for individuals and society, with a view to inspire the moral design, development and use of so-called intelligent/autonomous robots, and help prevent their misuse against humankind.”

This seminar will deal with mainly with (i) human ethics applied to robotics and (ii) codes of ethics embedded in the robots themselves (“machine ethics”). The topic about ethics that would emerge from a potential future consciousness of robots is not discussed in this seminar.

Sessions and Contents


To receive credits for this course must: (i) to attend the seminar, (ii) write an essay about the topic of the seminar; (iii) to present your essay in a talk. Attendance to the seminar accounts for 30%.

The final essay will count for 50% of your overall grade and it must answer one of the questions presented at the seminar which can be build from specific readings on the topic that will be provided.

Presentations will account for 20% of your overall grade. They should be well-prepared, well-informed, and serve to help your classmates understand the facts and issues connected with the topic of your essay. It should enable your classmates to ask interesting questions about it. Ideally, plan on a 20 min duration for your presentation and a subsequent discussion.

Hours / ECTS

Attending the seminar -- 36 h

Writing Essay -- 60 h

Preparing your talk -- 24 h

Total -- 120 h -- 4 ECTS


Torras, Carme (2018). "The Vestigial Heart: A novel of the robot age", The MIT Press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/vestigial-heart

Ballesté F. and Torras C. (2013) Effects of human-machine integration on the construction of identity. In Handbook of Research on Technoself: Identity in a Technological Society, edited by R. Luppicini, IGI Global, pp. 574-591.

Nourbakhsh I.R. (2013) Robot futures. MIT Press.

Stephenson, Neal. (2011). Innovation Starvation. World Policy Journal. 28. 11-16. DOI: 10.1177/0740277511425349.

Sullins J.P. (2015) Applied professional ethics for the reluctant roboticist. In The Emerging Policy and Ethics of Human-Robot Interaction, edited by L.D. Riek, W. Hartzog, D. Howard, A. Moon and R. Calo, Workshop at the 10th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, Portland.

Veruggio G., Solis, J. and Van der Loos M. (2011) Roboethics: Ethics applied to robotics [from the guest editors]. IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, 18(1): 21-22.

Wallach W. and Allen C. (2008) Moral machines: Teaching robots right from wrong. Oxford University Press.

See the contents to find out more references related to each session.