CISC849 F2018

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Course information

Description CISC 849 -- Ethical Issues in Robotics and AI

An examination of issues raised by recent and expected advances in robotic and artificially intelligent (AI) systems, from the perspective of both their designers/creators and members of society generally. We will briefly cover the history and current state of robotics and AI, review relevant philosophical foundations and professional guidelines for engineers, and examine a number of topic areas. These include workplace safety, robots as caregivers and companions, surveillance and data mining, driverless cars, drones and autonomous military systems, and super-intelligent game-players. The format will focus on discussion and analysis of case studies in each topic area, as well as broader economic and social impacts.

Instructor Christopher Rasmussen
Office: Smith 446
Office hours: Mondays 10 am to noon
Web page
Shortened URL
Schedule Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 pm to 3:15 pm in Smith Hall 102A
  • 20% Analytical paper, due Oct. 11
  • 20% Presentation, given between Oct. 25 and Nov. 1
  • 30% Final project, alone or team of two. Proposal due Nov. 13, presentations Dec. 4-6
  • 30% Class participation. This includes attendance and how much you talk, but also the quality of what you say

For the presentation, each student will choose a real or hypothetical case/topic involving robotics/AI ethics issues. In 15-20 minutes, you will orally deliver a summary of the topic, outline the ethical issues and stakeholders, and ask the class several questions designed to initiate discussion. Visual aids (i.e., slides) are not required, but may be used for clarity. Presentation subjects must not be too similar to topics already in the syllabus, so you must get instructor approval after choosing a presentation date.

The project will involve a written and presentation component. Similar to the presentation, you will pick a topic (with instructor permission) to summarize and analyze. In fact, if you choose you may use the same topic as your presentation. However, here slides will be required, and you will also be asked to propose a technical "solution" that mitigates one or more ethical concerns related to the topic. The design and justification of this "solution" will constitute the bulk of the deliverables for the project.

All homework artifacts (papers, slides) must be submitted via e-mail to the instructor by midnight of the deadline day (with a grace period of a few hours afterward).

Students can discuss problems with one another in general terms, but must work independently on all assignments except the final project. This also applies to online and printed resources: you may consult them as references (as long as you cite them), but the words you turn in must be yours alone. Any quoting must be clear and appropriately cited--plagiarism in any form will not be tolerated. The University's policies on academic dishonesty are set forth in the student code of conduct here.

For the overall course grade, a preliminary absolute mark will be assigned to each student based on the percentage of the total possible points they earn according to the standard formula: A = 90-100, B = 80-90, C = 70-80, etc., with +'s and -'s given for the upper and lower third of each range, respectively. Based on the distribution of preliminary grades for all students (i.e., "the curve"), the instructor may increase these grades monotonically to calculate final grades. This means that your final grade can't be lower than your preliminary grade, and your final grade won't be higher than that of anyone who had a higher preliminary grade.

I will try to keep you informed about your standing throughout the semester. If you have any questions about grading or expectations at any time, please feel free to ask me.

Book sources



Note: The blue squares in the "#" column below indicate Tuesdays.

# Date Topic Details Readings Links
1 Aug. 28 Introduction Course overview; brief history of robotics/AI slides
2 Aug. 30 State of the art Brief survey of current projects in robotics, AI, and machine learning slides
3 Sep. 4 Finish Aug. 30 slides; Ethics basics Moral tests, morality in animals, metaethics Sample MST scenarios
4 Sep. 6 Ethics basics Overview of normative, applied ethics
5 Sep. 11

Register/add deadline

Professional issues "3 Laws", codes of ethics
6 Sep. 13 Professional issues Product reliability (including safety, security), liability
7 Sep. 18 Factory bots and knowledge workers Labor, impacts (surgical, news/law, ...)
8 Sep. 20 Driverless cars History, technology
9 Sep. 25 Driverless cars Impacts (labor/liability, lifestyle, environmental)
10 Sep. 27 Surveillance/image and text analysis
11 Oct. 2 Drones and lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs)
12 Oct. 4 Caregiving Medicine, education, childcare/eldercare
13 Oct. 9 NO CLASS
Instructor away
14 Oct. 11 Games/sports Chess/go, BattleBots, drone racing Analytical paper due
15 Oct. 16 Art Music composition, painting, writing
16 Oct. 18 Social Chatbots, friendship, love?
17 Oct. 23

Withdraw deadline

Rights of robots Legal standing, moral object vs. moral agent
18 Oct. 25 Caregiving (fictional) "Robot & Frank" (1:25) -- first 75 minutes
19 Oct. 30 Student presentations * Finish "Robot & Frank" Rachel, Sanhu
20 Nov. 1 Student presentations Michael, Rommy, Bilin, Jianwei
Election day
21 Nov. 8 Student presentations Ahmad, Yan-Ming, Zhang, Daniel
22 Nov. 13 Student presentations Yang, Zhou, Tianye, Ni Project proposal due
23 Nov. 15 Superintelligence
Nov. 20 NO CLASS
Thanksgiving break
Nov. 22 NO CLASS
Thanksgiving break
24 Nov. 27 "Ex Machina" (1:50) part 1
25 Nov. 29
  • "Ex Machina" part 2
  • "Be Right Back" (Black Mirror TV series season 2, episode 1)
26 Dec. 4 Project presentations; finish "Be Right Back"
  • Bilin and Zhang
  • Tianye
  • Rachel and Rommy
  • Sanhu
  • Ahmad
27 Dec. 6 Project presentations
  • Yan-Ming and Jianwei
  • Daniel and Michael
  • Zhou
  • Yang
  • Ni