Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Flourishing Isn’t Free: Paying Down Our Moral and Social Debt in Robotic Systems


Shannon Vallor

University of Edinburgh (GB)


Shannon Vallor is the Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) at the University of Edinburgh, where she is also appointed in Philosophy. Professor Vallor's research explores how AI, robotics, and data science reshape human moral character and intelligence. Her work includes advising academia, government and industry on the ethical design and use of AI, and is a former Visiting Researcher and AI Ethicist at Google. She is the author of the book Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting (Oxford University Press, 2016).


The conversation about social robots and ethics has matured considerably over the years, moving beyond two inadequate poles: superficially utilitarian analyses of ethical ‘risks’ of social robots that fail to question the underlying sociotechnical systems and values driving robotics development, and speculative, empirically unfounded fears of robo-pocalypses that likewise leave those underlying systems and values unexamined and unchallenged. Today our perspective in the field is normatively richer and more empirically grounded. However, there is still work to be done. In the transition from risk-mitigation that accepts the social status quo, to deeper thinking about how to design different worlds in which we might flourish with social robots, we nevertheless have not reckoned with the moral and social debt already accumulated in existing robotics systems and our broader culture of sociotechnical innovation. We relish our creative and philosophical imaginings of a future in which we live well with robots, but without a serious reckoning with the past and present, and the legacies of harm and neglect that must be redressed and repaired in order for those futures to be possible and sustainable. This talk explores those legacies and their accumulated debts, and what it will take to liberate social robotics from them.