Michael Decker, Mathias Gutmann (Eds.)

Robo- and Informationethics - Some Fundamentals

Zürich, Berlin: LIT 2012, Reihe: Hermeneutik und Anthropologie, Bd. 3, ISBN 978-3-643-90208-5, 264 S., engl. Brosch., 29.90 Euro
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Robo- and Informationethics: Some Introducing Remarks

Our ideas and concepts of human beings and their environment are deeply intertwined with technical knowledge. This holds true for the concepts of the bio-cultural being Homo sapiens, at least because it can be described as a descendant of tool-making predecessors (for example Homo habilis and Homo ergaster, their scientific names already indicating characteristic abilities of these early humans). But despite the characterisation of humans as tool-makers, it is not the mere fact of tool-making itself that defines humans. This fact is obviously useful in order to discern types of material cultures; a well-known procedure even for human predecessors in palaeoanthropology and archaeology (as the terms of Acheuléen, Moustérien or Gravettien may paradigmatically show). It rather seems to be the wise of tool-making, the form of handling artefacts and the structure of the life-forms, which constitute the connection between humans and their tools and means:

"Man's outstanding characteristic, his distinguishing mark, is not his metaphysical or physical nature - but his work.
It is this work, it is the system of human activities, which defines and determines the circle of "humanity".
Language , myth,religion, art, science, history are the constituents, the various sectors of this circle.
A "philosophy of man" would therefore be a philosophy, which would give us insight into the fundamental structure of each of these human activities, and which at the same time would enable us to understand them as an organic whole." (Cassirer 1972:68) 1

Understanding technique as the form of human action, technologies became the actual tools, which are undoubtedly produced by men; but at the same time, these tools alter and change human environment as well as the humans themselves. "Culture" then is not just transformed "nature", depending on human purposes. In descriptions of this kind, humans, technology and culture would have been thought itself. This reduced idea of human being and their world reflected the resulting relation as a "natural" relation, humans fundamentally as a natural unit, founded especially by concepts of life sciences.

The direct opposite - and to a certain extent even the mirror image - to this nature-centred concept of human beings would then be the assumption that humans literally are what they are transforming themselves into. Nature then became a resource of human self-transformation and the difference between nature and culture then would not be a sortal but an aspectual difference, referring to the very form of human action.2However, being juxtaposed in premise and consequence, both concepts of humans are closely related and mutually generate each other. If both relations, the nature-culture as well as the culture-nature relation, are separated from each other and the connecting reference - namely the system of human activities - is lost, the identity of humans inevitably becomes doubtful. According to the increasing process of technical self-substitution, a process, which is fuelled and accelerated by a variety of "converging technologies", it is not only the concept of humanity which is threatened immanently, but the concept of nature itself. Thus, converging technologies promote a correlated double process, the results of which can be particularly observed in the field of bio- and information technologies. They build an intriguing complex of capabilities and potentialities, which serve as a resource for the replacement and support of human features and activities. In consequence, human capabilities and human skills which root in the "natural" equipment of Homo sapiens, become the target of a transformation that finally tends to transcend the limits of the original "natural" constitution. This process of self-objectivation and -transformation endangers the relevance of corporeal as well as mental integrity, which both are assumed to be central criteria of the personal existence of Homo sapiens. As a result of this self-transformation of human beings "in the age of their artifivial reproduction", Homo sapiens itself more and more becomes a part and sometimes even an aspect of the environment; an environment which is - in the sense of ambient technologies - defined by the interfaces of information systems that are the less visible and observable the more they become funtionally optimised. However, the new technologies do not only provide severe anthropological problems, they are of methodological as well as ethical interest, too. the methodological dimension starts with the seemingly simple question whether or not "converging" technologies are of an entirely different nature compared to "traditional" technologies such as internet-based actor-sensor nets, Bayesian nets, gene technology and bioinformatics. The determination of the status and the relevance of these types of technologies, the validity, which can be claimed for the resulting descriptions and the adequacy assumed for the resulting models are then the main purpose of methodological reconstruction.

Reconstructions of this type will finally allow us to decide whether the attributes used in terms of e.g. autonomous systems, artificial moral agents or evolutionary robotics indicate proper characterisations of the respective devices (what they undoubtedly are) or mere metaphoric expressions. The clarification of the anthropological and the methodological aspects of those expressions are necessary prerequisites for the proper treatment of normative questions. These kinds of questions are immediately connected with the status of the technological devices (e.g. as "artificial persons") and the consequences and effects that the application of these technologies actually or potentially has or might have on societies which are exposed to severe challenges of different types at the same time. By paradigmatically considering the on-going debate on aging populations and the impact of the aging process on health care as well as warfare, the - possible - role of robotics becomes an important normative and ethical issue. As we are facing an extremely versatile field of research that undergoes the most rapid transformations, it is only reasonably to emphasise that the results of the anthropological, methodological and ethical reconstructions will of course differ fundamentally, depending on the perspective of the reconstructing scientist as well as the specificities of the techniques scrutinised. From this perspective, robo- and informationethics seem to provide exactly the type of reasoning which is necessary in order to reevaluate and determine some constituents of human self-understanding. However, this type of reasoning has to integrate normative as well as methodological aspects and thus this book presents the outcomes of a symposium on the limits of human self-substitution based upon some paradigmatic examples of the development of hybrid technology.

This symposium was organised at KIT with funding received form the KIT Focus "Humans and Technology". The results of the symposium are the very building blocks of the present publication. The first section presents papers, which deal specifically with robotic applications that go far beyond the robots successfully used in the field of industrial production. The second section focuses on normative aspects of roboethics, critically evaluating the description of outonomously acting technical machines as well as normative principles, which are assumed to be relevant for the ethical reflexion of robotic technology. The third section finally presents some methodological reconstruction specifically asking for the validity, which can be claimed for descriptions of robotic agents in the role of human actors.

Michael Decker Mathias Gutmann


  1. Cassirer, E. (1972): An Essay on Man, Yale University Press, New Haven, p. 68.
  2. Gutmann, M. (2002): "Human Cultures' Natures", in: Grunwald, A., Gutmann, M. & Neumann-Held, E.-M. (eds.): On Human Nature. Antropology: Biological and Philosophical Foundation, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, pp. 190-240.


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