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Swiss researcher offers blueprints for animal-friendly autonomous machines

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” By that metric, America (and every other nation that gorges itself on factory-farmed livestock) has some ethical issues to address.

For Oliver Bendel, a researcher at FHNW University in Switzerland, the issue isn’t strictly with our industrial agricultural techniques. Bendel worries that the high-tech future we’re developing fails to consider the well-being of Earth’s other creatures. Specifically, he thinks we should be developing animal-friendly autonomous machines.

“Machine ethics is a young discipline, 10 to 20 years old,” Bendel told Digital Trends. “It deals with machine morality or with moral machines. Machine ethics has so far concentrated almost exclusively on automatic actions that affect people. The moral machines I design also take animals into account.”

In a paper published last month in Paladyn, Journal of Behavioral Robotics, Bendel lays out a few ideas for how autonomous machines might be developed to respect the animals around them. Bendel suggests using “annotated decision trees,” in which the machine’s actions are clearly described, along with annotations that provide moral guidelines. “With [annotated decision trees] one can make moral assumptions and justifications explicit and make them the framework of the machines,” he said.

Among Bendel’s animal-friendly autonomous machine ideas, he proposes wind turbines that exhibit themselves when birds approach, robotic vacuum cleaners that avoid ladybugs, and farm equipment that steers around baby deer hidden among crops. “Cars that brake for toads and hedgehogs would be important to me,” he added.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, researchers use a platform called Moral Machine to crowdsource moral judgements that could someday help self-driving cars make split-second decisions. But the scenarios in Moral Machine are almost exclusively concerned with human well-being. As autonomous machines become more commonplace, Bendel thinks it’s essential that we develop a framework that takes animals into account as well.

“In the future, more and more robots and devices will encounter animals, pets as well as farm animals and wild animals,” he said. “Robots like Nao, Pepper, Paro, iPal, and K5 appear everywhere in households, nursing homes, retirement homes, and shopping malls. They are primarily oriented towards people. That must change. Because in fact they also encounter animals, frighten them, disturb them, injure them. At the moment, we are anthropocentric in robot construction.”

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