Participants of Ethics and Neurorobotics workshop. Photo credits: Veronica Medina

What is neurorobotics and how does it differ from ‘classical robotics’? What are potential future developments in this field? What social and ethical questions might they pose and how do we address them? These were some of the topics discussed at the Ethics and Neurorobotics joint workshop bringing together researchers from the Human Brain Project’s (HBP) Neurorobotics and Ethics & Society Subprojects. This workshop took place on 14th September 2018 at the Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Real-time Systems group of the Technical University of Munich (Germany).

Professor Alois Knoll opens the workshop

The workshop was opened by HBP Software Development Director Professor Alois Knoll who highlighted the needs and potentials for collaborations between roboticists and social scientists. The main aim of this first workshop was for roboticists and social scientists to learn more about each other’s work. Fabrice Morin introduced neurorobotics as an emerging interdisciplinary field of research at the intersection of robotics and neuroscience summarizing it as ‘bodies for brains and brains for bodies’. He discussed application domains of neurorobotics such as cognitive robotics, compliant robot control and robotics for neurorehabilitation. Yannick Morel continued with roboticist’s perspective on potential industrial areas of application such as autonomous driving, mobile robotics, prosthetics and human-robot collaborative work in Industry 4.0. These have important societal implications in particular on future employment and jobs.

From the social science perspective, Christine Aicardi outlined a number of ethical concerns in public research-industry collaborations, for instance, the tension between business rationale and research rationale in terms of goals, incentives, timelines, constraints and risks as well as trust, independence and integrity of research and conflict of interests. Lars Klüver introduced work of Ethics and Society sub-project on dual use and European citizen consultation on political, security, intelligence and military uses of concern of neuroscience research. Inga Ulnicane highlighted the European Union’s changing context of dual use research where in addition to the Framework Programmes funding research exclusively for civil applications new funding bodies are set up to support defence research. The concept of responsible dual use can be helpful here to define the relationship between civil and defence research.  

Several presentations on data governance addressed practical as well as conceptual issues of data governance in the HBP. Axel von Arnim discussed proper use and handling of user data of Neurorobotics platform regarding platform access management, its monitoring and regulation. Tyr Fothergill provided an overview of aims and best practices of data governance as well as relevant practices in the HBP including Data Governance Working Group, Data Protection Officer and Ethics Compliance. Manuel Guerrero emphasized the need to think about social benefits and public interest such as well-being and welfare in data sharing and joint platforms.

Lab visit during the workshop

Turning to public engagement, Lars Klüver shared his experience on successful public engagement. Christine Aicardi presented her engagement activities in collaboration with science fiction writers, using near future fiction to open up new perspectives on scientific practices as well as to provoke reflection on societal implications. Furthermore, preparations for forthcoming HBP collaborative activities on Artificial Intelligence were discussed. Overall the workshop helped to identify topics of common interests for future collaborations between roboticists and social scientists and to start joint research on social and ethical aspects of neurorobotics led by HBP Ethics Director, Professor Bernd Stahl.


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