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DRPS : Course Catalogue : Edinburgh Futures Institute : Edinburgh Futures Institute

Postgraduate Course: Ethics of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (fusion online) (EFIE11164)

Course Outline
SchoolEdinburgh Futures Institute CollegeCollege of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate)
Course typeOnline Distance Learning AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits10 ECTS Credits5
SummaryThis course introduces students to the new ethical challenges arising from recent advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous systems. Robots and other autonomous systems are being developed for applications ranging from healthcare and elder care to policing and warfare. In this course we explore how robotic and autonomous technologies can be designed and deployed responsibly and ethically, in ways that enhance rather than degrade human capabilities and wellbeing.
Course description This course introduces students to the new ethical challenges arising from recent advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous systems. Robots and other autonomous systems are being developed for applications ranging from healthcare and elder care to policing and warfare. In this course we explore how robotic and autonomous technologies can be designed and deployed responsibly and ethically, in ways that enhance rather than degrade human freedom, opportunity and wellbeing.

Topics will include: the ethical design and use of social robots; the special implications of robots used in care settings; the debate over the moral and legal permissibility of robots in military and policing applications; the impact of robots and autonomous systems on the labour economy and the environment; and the implications of these technologies for human capabilities, rights, virtues and dignity. Learning in an innovative hybrid and intensive mode that brings together online and in-person students, you will work together in collaborative groups to practice deliberating with others about the possibilities of living and working alongside robots and autonomous systems, and how we ought to shape these possibilities to align with just and sustainable futures for humanity.

Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) - Online Fusion Course Delivery Information:

The Edinburgh Futures Institute will teach this course in a way that enables online and on-campus students to study together. This approach (our 'fusion' teaching model) offers students flexible and inclusive ways to study, and the ability to choose whether to be on-campus or online at the level of the individual course. It also opens up ways for diverse groups of students to study together regardless of geographical location. To enable this, the course will use technologies to record and live-stream student and staff participation during their teaching and learning activities. Students should note that their interactions may be recorded and live-streamed. There will, however, be options to control whether or not your video and audio are enabled.

As part of your course, you will need access to a personal computing device. Unless otherwise stated activities will be web browser based and as a minimum we recommend a device with a physical keyboard and screen that can access the internet.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2023/24, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  8
Course Start Semester 1
Course Start Date 18/09/2023
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 100 ( Seminar/Tutorial Hours 14, Online Activities 2, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 2, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 82 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 100 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) Summative Assessment:
The course will be assessed by means of the following assessment component(s):
1) 1500 Word 'White Paper' / 500 Word Annotated Appendix (100%)

Each student, following the intensive, will choose a case study/controversy in the ethics of robotics and autonomous systems from a prepared list, and conduct independent research on that case/controversy. They will be paired with another student (or two) who have chosen the same study, and asked to work independently for the first week, but meet in the second to share their answers to key questions in the case study and deliberate about areas of reasoned disagreement as well as consensus.

Each will then write an individual 1500 word 'white paper' on their case study for a nonspecialist audience, making a moral argument and advisory recommendation in response to a case study question with practical implications for design and regulation (for example, 'should robots ever be allowed to lie to a human?').

Students must also include a 500 word appendix commenting on their discussion with their paired student(s), and what different factual assumptions, perspectives, values and moral reasons the conversation revealed. Both pieces of the summative assessment will be due four weeks after the intensive.
Feedback Formative feedback will be provided in the immersive phase by the course organiser leading the Q&A session in the second week, who will jointly help to shape student understandings of of the core issues and the first collaborative task.

Additional live formative feedback will be given on the group presentations of the case studies during the Day 1 intensive. This feedback will invite a general class discussion of group dynamics and project management to address any potential difficulties groups may encounter.

Written summative feedback will be provided on the individual summative assessments, following the post-intensive application phase.
No Exam Information
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Demonstrate a basic understanding of key concepts, theories, and applications in the field of robot ethics and ethics of autonomous systems, including understandings of the relationships between the concept of a robot, an AI system, an autonomous system, and a machine agent.
  2. Critically discuss and evaluate a variety of normative perspectives in debates about moral issues in the design, deployment and regulation of robotic and autonomous systems, across multiple domains.
  3. Work constructively with others to identify salient ethical issues in a case study involving robotic and autonomous systems, form questions that allow deeper investigation, and articulate the relevant moral interests of different groups and stakeholders that developers, regulators and purchasers of these systems must take into account and treat with moral care and respect.
  4. Produce and clearly communicate for non-specialists in a 'white paper' format a basic analysis and advisory output pertaining to a pressing challenge for ethical design or regulation of robotic/autonomous systems.
  5. Identify and critically evaluate the different factual assumptions, perspectives, values and moral reasons that shape different positions on key debates in the field of robot/autonomous systems ethics.
Reading List
Essential Reading:

Birhane, Abeba & Jelle van Dijk (2020). 'Robot Rights? Let's Talk About Human Welfare Instead.' Proceedings of the AAAI/ACM Conference on AI Ethics and Society 2020, 207-213.

Cave, Stephen and Kanta Dihal (2020), 'The Whiteness of AI,' Philosophy & Technology 33: 685-703.

Isaac, Alistair M.C. and Bridewell, Will (2017), 'White Lies on Silver Tongues: Why Robots Need to Deceive,' in P. Lin et al eds. Robot Ethics 2.0, Oxford University Press (Chapter 11).

Sparrow, Robert (2016). 'Robots and Respect: Assessing the Case against Autonomous Weapons Systems," Ethics & International Affairs 30 (1) 93 -116.

Sven Nyholm and Jilles Smids (2020), 'Can a Robot be a Good Colleague?' Science and Engineering Ethics 26: 2169-2188.

Vallor, Shannon (2011). 'Carebots and Caregivers: Sustaining the Ethical Ideal of Care in the Twenty-First Century.' Philosophy and Technology 24: 251-268.

Recommended Reading:

Robot Ethics (2012), eds. Patrick Lin, George Bekey and Keith Abney. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Robot Ethics 2.0 (2017), eds. Patrick Lin, Ryan Jenkins, and Keith Abney. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bryson, Joanna & Dignum, Virginia (2018). 'Patiency is Not a Virtue: The Design of Intelligent Systems and Systems of Ethics.' Ethics and Information Technology 20, 15-26.

Coeckelbergh, Mark (2010). 'Robot Rights? Towards a Social-Relational Justification of Moral Consideration. Ethics and Information Technology 12(3), 209-221.

Donath, Judith (2020), 'Ethical Issues in Our Relationship with Artificial Entities,' The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI, Oxford University Press (Chapter I.3 in Dubber, Pasquale & Das).

Jenkins, Ryan and Purves, Duncan (2016). 'Robots and Respect: A Response to Robert Sparrow," Ethics & International Affairs 30 (3) 391-400.

Scheutz, Matthias (2012), 'The Inherent Dangers of Unidirectional Emotional Bonds between Humans and Social Robots,' Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics, eds. P. Lin, K. Abney and G.A. Bekey, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 205-221.

Zoller, David (2017). 'Skilled Perception, Authenticity and the Case Against Automation,' Robot Ethics 2.0, Oxford University Press (Chapter 6 in Lin, Abney and Jenkins).

Further Reading:

Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong (2009). Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen. New York: Oxford University Press.

The New Breed: How to Think About Robots (2021). Kate Darling. London: Penguin Books.

Giubilini, Alberto & Savulescu, Julian (2017), 'The Artificial Moral Advisor: The 'Ideal Observer' Meets Artificial Intelligence,' Philosophy and Technology 31, 169-188.

Saetra, Henrik Skaug (2021), 'Robotomorphy: Becoming our Creations,' AI and Ethics,

Van Wynsberghe, Aimee & Robbins, Scott (2018), 'Critiquing the Reasons for Making Artificial Moral Agents, Science and Engineering Ethics 25(3), 719-735.

Poulsen, Adam, Anderson, Susan Leigh, Anderson, Michael, Ben Byford, Fabio Fossa, Erica L. Neely, Alejandro Rojas & Alan Winfield (2019), 'Responses to a Critique of Artificial Moral Agents.' Cornell University. arXiv preprint at

Vallor, Shannon. Moral Deskilling and Upskilling in a New Machine Age: Reflections on the Ambiguous Future of Character. Philos. Technol. 28, 107-124 (2015).
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Knowledge and Understanding:
- A critical understanding of a range of specialised theories, concepts and principles drawn from multiple disciplinary and practitioner perspectives.
- A critical awareness of current challenges and debates in an emerging research area involving multiple specialisms.

Applied Knowledge, Skills and Understanding:
- Ability to apply critical knowledge to concrete case studies, research outputs, applications and proposals.
- Ability to identify potential challenges in a case study, as related to design, use and regulation.
- Ability to demonstrate originality and/or creativity, including in practice.

Generic Cognitive Skills:
- Development of original and creative responses to problems and issues.
- Capacity to critically review, consolidate and extend knowledge, skills, practices and thinking across disciplines, subjects, and sectors.
- Ability to deal with complex issues and make informed judgements in situations in the absence of complete or consistent data/information.

Communication, ICT, and Numeracy Skills:
- Communication, using appropriate methods, to a range of audiences with different levels of knowledge/expertise.
- Ability to articulate clear and well-justified advisory recommendations.

Autonomy, Accountability, and Working with Others:
- Skills to manage their own individual contribution to a group presentation or report.
- The ability to engage constructively and productively in critical debate.
KeywordsRobot Ethics,Robotics,Autonomous Agents,Artificial Intelligence,Human Rights,Capabilities,EFI,PG
Course organiserDr Cristina Richie
Course secretaryMiss Veronica Silvestre
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