The Ethics of Robot Servitude
October 5, 2006
Suppose we could build creatures with intelligence comparable to our own, who by
design want to do tasks we find unpleasant.
we build such creatures?
This is the central question I wish to examine. Before we turn to my answer and
its defense, though, I’d like briefly to consider something philosophers typically do not
stop to consider: namely, why we might ask the question in the first place.
The question is, first of all, a natural and engaging one. When I discuss the possi-
bility of artificial intelligence with undergraduates, they immediately begin to wonder
about whether they might have robot servants in their lifetime, and this leads them
immediately to the question of whether they
have them. The association is un-
derstandable, given the prevalence of robot servants in pop culture. To pick some ref-
erences from my own cultural frame, there’s C3PO and R2D2 from
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
, Rosie from
, HAL from
and “Robot” from
Lost in Space
. Much of the
corpus is dedicated to
robot labor. More recently there’s Data from
Star Trek: The Next Generation
, and the host of robots in the Kubrick-Spielberg movie
tled robot servants are at the heart of the
plotline (as the backstory in
makes clear). Isaac Asimov’s
series simply assumes that intelligent robots
should be programmed as our servants; it’s written into Asimov’s famous “3 laws of
Thanks to Marc Alspector-Kelly, Jim Delaney, Ashley McDowell, Bill Rapaport, and Mark Walker for
comments on drafts. Thanks also to many undergraduate students for class discussion. And thanks, finally,
to Patrick Grim, Eric Dietrich, Selmer and Katherine Bringsjord, and all who discussed this with me at the
NA-CAP 2006 Conference.
This is a
), and should not be circulated or cited
“1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the
First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the
First or Second Law.” From Asimov (1950).