Technology Paper on Social Robots and Ethical Issues

Social Robots and Ethical Issues


Over the past decade, the application and use of social robots have expanded beckoning the attention of big companies like Google, Apple, and many other tech giants to invest massive resources in developing new robots. The individual benefits of using robots are numerous, which ranges from improving human health to improving the efficiency of industrial manufacture. In addition, they have found a diverse range of applications in the social life. However, these developments face major resistance when it comes to privacy violation, data protection, and identity theft (Wallach & Allen, 2008).

Many experts in robotic law and philosophy of technology argue that users of social robots are highly susceptible to bearing their secrets to anthropomorphic robots that record them in remote servers. This literature review focuses on the privacy concerns, data protection, and physical damages caused by social robots. The issue of privacy concern is crucial as robots are fitted with cameras that record everything from motions to speech in their surroundings, these robots follow their users around and as such may record embarrassing moments especially in nakedness and private conversations.

The ubiquitous use of cameras in a home environment raises privacy concerns, which is one of the major barriers to the deployment of smart home systems for elderly and disabled care (Erivaldo et al., 2016). As more social service robots integrate into human homes, malicious third parties may use the opportunity to develop their own robots and turn the technology into eyes, ears, and hands within their houses, which might lead to other social challenges. There is also the issue raised about hackers – having an unprotected home robot connected to a person’s local network allow hackers to access their private information which they might use against the person, for instance, to enhance fraud and crime.

Furthermore, robots can malfunction and cause physical harms to the users, which can lead to death or serious injuries. Besides the physical harm that a robot can cause to human beings and the privacy concerns, robots are computers that inherit all the vulnerabilities that are seen in computer networks, which continue to raise serious security and privacy concerns (Akdemir, 2017).

The purpose of this literature review is to evaluate many of the contributions in the discussion of robot ethics and specifically three topics on current issues, positions, and problems that have arisen. Psychological, ethical, legal, and social-cultural consequences of the home robot as well as major areas of concern in robotic applications are privacy breach, hacking, and physical damage as robots will be in the entire place in a couple of decades are discussed in this literature review.

As explained by Gunkel (2012), the consumer market for social robots is rapidly catching up because many people prefer to use them at home to do some simple tasks such as cleaning rooms. With the inevitable use of social robots in the future in almost all chores of human lives and especially at homes in cleaning homes, taking care of the elderly and the sick, teaching children and personal companionship. The literature review was conducted in line with three research questions namely (1) to determine the challenges of using social robots, (2) to determine the needed changes that will ensure the future robotic technology preserves humanity and social values, and lastly (3) to assess the current research findings that help to develop advanced social robots.

Literature Review

Previously, robots were strictly operating in industries but with the developing trends in technology, there has been a new development in use of robots in our homes. In this section, we condense many of the hurdles facing the use of home robot ethics and set out an agenda of research for these major areas in the robotic field. Earlier findings indicated that people did not want robots to replace any human task; this is a linked to the notion of dehumanization (Wallach & Allen, 2008).

Home robots, however, have innate superior capabilities, can perform social tasks both accurately and perfectly, and are therefore more responsible in the sense of their performance of tasks effectively. If robot ethics is to meet the demand of from the users, we need to address the questions of ethical issues that are likely to arise in the future, today.

Privacy Breach

Privacy invasion is one of the major concern when it comes to uses of home robots, they are designed in such a way that they have inbuilt cameras that record, process and sense the world around them; the installed cameras record every aspect of a robot’s surrounding environment. This may include nakedness when taking a bath or changing clothes and sleeping. Such photos and embarrassing moments find their way to a remote server that stores all these compromising information.

Robots can also record voice speeches of private conversations, which are very uncomfortable; therefore, users have to worry on their secrets falling on the wrong ears. Furthermore, social robots have a unique advantage of extracting information from their users; they can lavage some of the things such as fear and praise to extract information from humans. These robots turn users’ requests and musings into data, upload them to the cloud, and possibly generate data algorithms. These robots have undying perfect memories and cannot forget conversations that maybe used in the future against the user.

According to the result of a research study by Erivaldo et al (2016), the best way to avoid the friction between a robot and human privacy is to develop robots that can detect and avoid recording private and sensitive data. In this research study, the authors proposed a system that train home robots to avoid recording nakedness, which acquires the images and controls the robot.


A social robot is susceptible to hacking just like any other computer because its assembly is in the same way as computers; however, the dangers that come with a security hack on a home robot are more severe as they interact in many more unpredictable ways with both its surrounding and human beings.

Therefore besides the fact that it leads to denial of service or loss of digital data and financial losses and violation of individual privacy,  the denial of service attack on the Wi-Fi of a social robot such as that of a working assisting robot to result in loss of balance and a literal physical harm to the disabled person. A hacked service robot could injure the user or other family members or prescribe the wrong medication in case of use of robots in elder care homes or can even provide a hacker with a detailed map of your home.

Furthermore, the emerging robots emulate all the modern computing and networking technology and as a result, future robots will have the same problems that modern computers have. Additionally, the electromechanical parts of a social robot that enable it to carry out sophisticated chores are also open to attacks and may cause physical injuries. A social robot carries the vulnerabilities of both software and hardware attacks and can lead to physical injury (Gunkel, 2012).

The difficulty with developing countermeasures that protect social robots such as those used to protect cryptographic devices is that robots target is for different purposes. Where in cryptographic devices data is severely restricted to data input channel, this approach falls short in robots because the sources of information that robots base their decisions on are many and diverse in nature. Home robots sense and interact with their environment differently; therefore, the existing countermeasures do not provide adequate protection against hacking.

Additionally, developers of home robots are so concerned with developing these products that the issue of security is almost negligible. Therefore, the robotic community should target to advance security solutions that are already in place such as those for defense and telecom networks, which are more sophisticated to secure social robots. This should include hardware for irreversible configurations and unique identification among other measures such as tamper detection, encryption for secure communication and secure boot.

The issues of shipping robots with generic passwords and issues of open vs. closed -source debate with issues of network security is at the forefront. Open source systems vulnerabilities tend to identify with larger audience and countermeasures quickly developed compared to closed systems. The only way to prevent such attacks is for robotic manufacturers should anticipate unique threats and implement the appropriate security measure before releasing them to the market.

Physical damage

Another issue is that social robots may malfunction and intentionally harm the user; robots are incapable of feelings and can misinterpret instructions and harm the users. Home robots may not be able to differentiate sounds of pleasure from the sound of sadness and thus harm the user. A person with malicious intention can hack into your robots operating system and intentionally make it harm you. An example of a robot that malfunctioned is the incident that occurred in Volkswagen factory in Baunatal, Hesse, when an assembly robot physically manhandled him and died on arrival at the hospital (Hango, 2017).

Additionally, robots face social dilemmas, such as a robot having to lie to their user to avoid hurting the emotions of the user but as a result, the consequence of trying to protect their user causes a physical harm. An example is the dilemma of a robot operating in an elder home. Where an elderly person refuses to take their medicines,  and the robot knows that the consequence of not taking the medicines are far worse, the robot is faced with a dilemma of physically forcing the elderly to take the medicine or the contrary allowing the elderly person to skip the medication.

Summary and conclusion

Technology advances bring benefits and drawbacks. With the use of home robots, the boundary between the outside world and your home is penetrated. Human beings cannot stop the tide but can regulate and restrict the extent to which emerging technologies like service robots operate. By setting regulations measures concerning privacy and data protection, the use of home robots will increase, as more people will feel comfortable. Generally, the ethical challenges raised by the use of social robots are addressable by implementing certain procedures and regulations at various levels of robot development.



Akdemir, K. D., Karakoyunlu, D., Padir, T., & Sunar, B. (2010). An emerging threat: eve meets a robot. In International Conference on Trusted Systems (pp. 271-289). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Gunkel, D. J., (2012). The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots, and Ethics. Chicago: MIT Press.

Hongo, H. (2015, January 7). Worker Crushed to Death by Robot in Volkswagen Plant. NBC News. Retrieved from

Lin, P., Abney, K., & Bekey, G. A. (2011). Robot ethics: the ethical and social implications of robotics. New York: MIT press.

McClean, J., Stull, C., Farrar, C., & Mascareñas, D. (2013). A preliminary cyber-physical security assessment of the Robot Operating System (ROS). In SPIE Defense, Security, and Sensing (pp. 874110-874110). International Society for Optics and Photonics.

Wallach, W., & Allen, C., (2008). Moral machines: Teaching robots right from wrong. Oxford: Oxford University Press.