What ethical and societal questions scientists, engineers and developers in the Human Brain Project (HBP) encounter in their work? How do they deal with them? To shed some light on these questions we have a Q&A series with Ethics Rapporteurs. The second rapporteur in the series to answer our questions is Dr. Francesca Irene Cavallaro (Technical University of Munich, TUM, Germany) from the Sub-Project 10 Neurorobotics Platform.

Q1: Please briefly introduce the research and main activities of your Sub-project in the HBP!

The Neurorobotics Platform (NRP) is the HBP open source, open access integrative simulation framework designed to implement closed Action-Perception-Cognition loops in embodied settings. The platform allows its users to run experiments in which virtual robots or agents are connected to brain models of specific behavioural or cognitive functions so that they can interact with realistic simulated environments while performing the specific function under consideration. At present it is the best available platform for scientific exploration and development of robotics and neuromorphic computing applications.

Q2: How and why did you become an Ethics Rapporteur for HBP’s Neurorobotics Platform?

As communications and research uptake coordinator, my main task is to ensure engagement of all stakeholders involved and their understanding of our research process and outputs. This is a prerequisite for the successful adoption of a new technology. Ethics and safety issues are fundamental elements of the discourse around Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems and emerging technologies. Innovation projects that do not address the stakeholders concerns about the impact and consequences of novel research and applications are destined to fail or be abandoned very quickly. Therefore, it is part of my role to guarantee that societal and ethical implications of neurorobotic and brain research are carefully considered in both the design and usage of our platform. This is something that I do by being involved with the HBP ethical safeguard groups, such as the Ethics Rapporteur group, the Data Governance working group and the Dual Use Working group. As a publicly funded research project I feel that we have a duty to provide the best and safest service possible to our society. This can be done by carrying out high quality interdisciplinary research that embraces Responsible Research and Innovation principles.

Q3: What are the most exciting and most challenging aspects of being an Ethics Rapporteur?

Being a member of our HBP Ethics Rapporteur Programme offers the opportunity to learn from and interact with international experts in different research fields from mine. In particular, it is a great chance to acquire a deeper understanding of the ethical issues related to neurorobotics. Furthermore, the constructive dialogue and discussion of doubts and questions within the group allows me to better understand how to align the design and development of our platform with established ethical principles that promote the safety and wellbeing of our society.

The main challenge – as well as responsibility – that comes with being part of this group, for me, is to effectively communicate back this knowledge to colleagues who are often unaware of these issues and of the urgency and relevance of these matters.

Q4: What are the main societal benefits from the work of the Neurorobotics Platform?

The Neurorobotics Platform (NRP) is a brain-inspired technology that aims to drive the development of safe, robust and adaptable robotic systems, the performance of which we want to be comparable to that of biological agents. Our platform is an open access, open source tool for everyone who has an interest in neuroscience and robotics and wants to benefit from a powerful resource based on the latest scientific discoveries in these fields.

Another relevant feature of our platform is that it makes robotics experiments possible that could not be conducted in the real world, or that would otherwise carry an unacceptable risk (e.g. injury to a human, or damage to a system, etc.). Finally, the NRP enables the scaling and speeding up of experiments by parallelizing their execution via the High Performance Computing (HPC) resources available in the HBP, which will benefit research and development (R&D) in neuromorphic computing and embodied AI by driving a faster, more effective virtual prototyping and training of robotic systems.

Q5: What are the main ethical and societal questions you encounter in the work of the Neurorobotics Platform and how are they addressed?

Some broad, interesting ethical questions we are debating in our meetings, and still under consideration, are questions stemming from a classic roboethic issue, the definition of safe human-robot interactions. For instance, how can robots be designed in the NRP (both from a programming and engineering point of view) to best support and improve the wellbeing of the humans with whom they will interact? What kind of uses and purposes for robots can be considered legitimate and safe? These are open questions at the moment, not just proper to our platform but tightly linked to the evolution of robotics technologies and the analysis of the ethical implications of robotics research in general. In 2004 the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society established the Technical Committee on Robot Ethics, “a framework for raising and addressing the urgent ethical questions prompted by and associated with robotics research and technology”. The knowledge produced within this initiative is, for instance, one of the sources of information we are closely monitoring to better address such kind of questions.

Another important ethical issue that we have recently raised and discussed in a joint meeting with the HBP Ethics Rapporteur group and Dual Use working group as well as our Ethics Advisory Board experts, is the challenge posed by the creation of open access tools and resources, like our platform, and the need to avoid these same tools and resources being used for malevolent purposes, to harm others. As our wish is to provide an open and inclusive access to our platform, we can only remind its users of our commitment to the EC Horizon 2020 guidelines and recommendations which regulate the use of our research and research applications for benign use only.

Q6: What are good practices for involving scientists with ethical and societal issues?

There are several EU funded initiatives to look at for how to build an effective and insightful dialogue between the scientific community, ethicists, society, and policy makers. For instance, EURON Roboethics, Sherpa, Sienna, and Panelfit, to name just a few, are all multidisciplinary initiatives dedicated to identifying and analysing ethical, legal and societal issues of emerging technologies and the impact innovation has in our society, so that better and more informed policies can be produced.

Possibly, the main take away from these projects is to make sure that all stakeholders are involved at each stage of the research process and are given the possibility to safely express their concerns and needs. We need to continue promoting responsible research and critical ethical thinking in an effort to convey how fundamental ethical and societal issues are, and what a transformational power they have when embedded in our technologies early on.

Francesca Irene Cavallaro, PhD, works as communications and research uptake coordinator for the HBP Neurorobotics group of the Chair of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Embedded Systems, at the Technical University of Munich (TUM, Germany). She has a decade-long experience of working in research and innovation projects with a focus on user research, user experience and human-centred design, and research ethics. Prior to her appointment at TUM, she worked as a consultant for the UNESCO Bioethics and Ethics of Science and Technology section.  She served as senior researcher and clinical research coordinator for the neurorehabilitation department of Tecnalia Research and Innovation, one of the largest research and technology organisations in Europe. She was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Professional Ethics, University of Central Lancashire, (UK), leading the dissemination activities of the EU-funded project ProGReSS.

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