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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Robotics and assistive neurotechnologies – challenges for society

Thematic area: Biomedical technologies
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: ongoing
Current project phase: Report completed. Approval by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment pending
Duration: 2016 till 2017

Background and central aspects of the topic

The project »Human-machine interaction« deals with technological trends involving an increasing merger of humans and machines. The dynamics regarding the dissolution of boundaries between humans and machines is basically driven by developments in two fields of technology: neurotechnologies involving an increasing mechanisation of humans (by direct coupling of electronic devices to the brain or the nervous system, respectively) on the one hand and autonomous robotics on the other hand generating machines that are not only able to act more and more autonomously, but are also increasingly similar to humans.

The project »Human-machine interaction« comprises two stages: The technological assessment within the framework of the completed first exploratory phase with the title »Between artificial intelligence and human enhancement« resulted in the conclusion that – contrary to prominent discourses on the future – the politically explosive nature of these developments is not due to the assumption that a technological enhancement of human beings (to a socially relevant degree) or a »takeover« by intelligent robots is to be expected in the foreseeable future. In fact, the challenges rather emerge on a more subtle level, e. g. due to the possibility that fundamental anthropological categories that form the basis of our current moral and legal order – such as self-determination, identity, responsibility – are losing ground. The results of the exploratory phase have been documented in the report »Technologies and visions of human-machine interaction« (TAB working report no. 167).

In the currently ongoing second phase of the TAB project, the goal is now to determine in detail and deepen the resulting ethical and legal issues using the example of a tangible context of application: care. For this, questions that have been addressed to the TAB in another project proposal (robotics in the care sector) shall be picked up and investigated.

In view of the demographic change, for Germany, the areas of care and health are justifiably considered to be a paradigmatic field of application for technologies of human-machine interaction. This is due to the fact that in future a severe ageing of the population and hence an increasing share of people in need of care in the total population is to be expected. It is postulated that the threat of a crisis in care is considered to be one of the biggest social challenges which can only be faced by increasingly using new technologies. However, this emerging trend and its implications are also a subject of controversial discussions. Because as increasingly autonomously acting machines are moving closer and closer to people who are particularly in need of assistance and thus protection, numerous ethical and legal issues are growing more acute at the same time.

Objectives and approach

Especially autonomously acting service or care robots as well as the combination of assistive technologies with non-invasive neurotechnologies (control of exoskeletons, communication devices etc. by means of brain-computer interfaces) are considered to have a great potential to reduce the burden on nursing staff and to support people in need of care in their everyday life and during rehabilitation. Corresponding applications are currently being developed and tested.

The following aspects shall be investigated in depth:

  • Which moral problems result from the increasing technicality and particularly from an automation of everyday care for the different players involved (e. g. loss of human interaction as well as of autonomy and privacy)? Which potential approaches exist, for example, with regard to an adequate design of the systems or the shaping of care settings?
  • What are the current regulations for dealing with these technologies, particularly with regard to issues of security, liability and data privacy? Are they adapted to the upcoming challenges? Is there a need for action or regulation in the foreseeable future?
  • What could be an adequate governance or design of technology development in order to find solutions that are demand-oriented and capable of gaining acceptance?

The assessment of these issues shall be based on a critical and as realistic as possible overview of the actually expectable performance of the technologies involved on the one hand and on society’s expectations and values on the other hand.