Allen and Wallach's Moral Machines is the best text yet in the rapidly expanding field of robot ethics - and their work offers insight into the morals of not only robots, but ourselves as well.
Wallach and Allen examine the strengths and limitations of traditional approaches to ethics, such as deontology and utilitarianism, and the issues that arise in attempting a top-down programming of such rules into a robot. But the history of ethics is replete with controversy over the adequacy of any proposed set of rules - for instance, it might seem logical to switch the track of a runaway trolley that would kill five workers, even if it would thereby kill one person on the other track - switching maximizes utility. But should a doctor then harvest organs from a patient in for a checkup to save five people in the next room needing transplants?
So what should a robot do? An alternative is to attempt a 'bottom up' approach, and teach ethics to robots by trial and error, as we do children. The authors argue that this approach has both technical and rational limitations as well; principles are especially useful in resolving the difficult moral situations we call moral dilemmas. So they argue that a hybrid approach is probably best, and discuss in thought-provoking ways whether robots would need emotions, and how human-like we should desire these robotic agents to be.
Wallach and Allen convincingly argue that even if full moral agency for machines is a long way off, it is already necessary to start instilling into robots a type of functional morality, as robots are already engaged in high-risk situations and are already equipped with lethal weapons (e.g., the Predator drones now flying in Pakistan).
The text is anchored in near-term considerations and hence is light on some of the more far-reaching aspects of robot ethics - for instance, if full human-type ('Kantian') autonomy for robots is possible, should it be allowed? Or should robots be forever relegated to a 'slave morality', so they could never ultimately choose their own life's goals - lest they be harmful to humans? But the failure to engage in these more long-term debates simply underlines the near-term strengths of this text. For those wondering (or worried) about moral questions involving robots over the next decade, this is a must-read.
P.S. They also have a nice blog with updates: [...]