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Morality for robots?

August 30, 2012

In new book, NIU Professor David Gunkel examines ethical questions raised by 21st century computers, robots and artificial intelligence

On the topic of computers, artificial intelligence and robots, Northern Illinois University Professor David Gunkel says science fiction is fast becoming “science fact.”

Fictional depictions of artificial intelligence have run the gamut from the loyal Robot in “Lost in Space” to the killer computer HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the endearing C-3PO and R2-D2 of “Star Wars” fame.

While those robotic personifications are still the stuff of fiction, the issues they raised have never been more relevant than today, says Gunkel, an NIU Presidential Teaching Professor in the Department of Communication.

In his new book, “The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots, and Ethics” (The MIT Press), Gunkel ratchets up the debate over whether and to what extent intelligent and autonomous machines of our own making can be considered to have legitimate moral responsibilities and any legitimate claim to moral treatment.

“A lot of the innovation in thinking about machines and their moral consideration has been done in science fiction, and this book calls upon fiction to show us how we’ve confronted the problem,” Gunkel says. “In fact, the first piece of writing to use the term ‘robot’ was a 1920s play called ‘R.U.R.,’ which included a meditation on our responsibilities to these machines.”

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