Robots and privacy – discussion


Peter: Robotic aircraft are becoming ubiquitous. There's a whole class now of quite sophisticated toys you can go and buy from the shop for a few hundred bucks. Generally, there are quad rotor machines. You can control them with your iPhone. You can fly them up. You can look out the neighbor's fence. You can look in neighbor's window. So, this technology is starting to cause people serious concerns with respect to privacy. So Doug, what does ethics say about privacy?
Doug: The construct of privacy is a modern construct.
Peter: Okay. We didn't use to have privacy?
Doug: Well, it's culturally defined. In other words, what I consider private today in 21st century Australia and what you would consider private in 1850 London, it's quite different. What we choose in terms of privacy is different. It's contextual over time and place. However--
Peter: So, it's not a fundamental underlying principle?
Doug: No.
Peter: Okay.
Doug: No, absolutely not. Privacy is not. It's founded in liberal democracy and the right of the individual to choose and have their own space. The Americans are the only, I think they're the only culture that has right to property. With the right to property comes right to privacy. But the degree of privacy, of course, is being argued right now in Australia in terms of access to data.
Peter: Absolutely.
Doug: Yes. So, in terms of ethics, it goes back again to those fundamental duties or those fundamental concepts of autonomy. So, we have levels of freedom in terms of autonomy. So, those levels go from freedom, of course, of restraint down to the freedom of choice, then to informed reason, informed choice and lastly, the choice based on the recognition of moral values. So, those are areas in terms of autonomy that are critical in ethics. Now, if you lose your privacy, in terms of ethics, the only ethical argument here is how it affects your individual autonomy to make decisions. But privacy is certainly not an ethical issue, it's a cultural issue.
Peter: So, if it's cramping your style or it's changing what you can do, then it's an ethical issue.
Doug: It is.
Peter: Okay.
Doug: Because it's affecting your power of choice. Again, that's a modern construct is privacy. It's a modern construct. It's quite different. For example, in Roman times you may take a shower - or you don't take a shower you take baths - with other people, today we have our own bathrooms. But privacy… when I grew up with five kids and two bedrooms… it's a different construct now, right?
Peter: Yes.
Doug: It's culturally determined.
Peter: There are some people who say that privacy is a concept that is just going to go away and we should just get used to it.
Doug: Yes.
Peter: Particularly, with respect to our online existence and identities.
Doug: Yes, yes. Autonomy is the issue, not privacy. 

It is not surprising public concern about robotic aircraft has prompted discussion about the potential to invade our privacy. However you might be surprised to learn our concept of privacy is changing over time and the real issue is autonomy.

Professor Peter Corke

Professor of Robotic Vision at QUT and Director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV). Peter is also a Fellow of the IEEE, a senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and on the editorial board of several robotics research journals.

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