Ethical Aspects of Cyber-Physical Systems: Tech@Work Digital Library

  • Laura Monti
  • Future scenarios, Industry 4.0, Reports, Video
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During a recent trip to Rome I met Alessandro, a nurse at one of the eternal city’s best-known private hospitals – the Casa Di Cura Pio XI. In our chat, he described in meticulous detail how medical robots are changing his tasks and workplace. Alessandro shared that in recent years Pio XI has deployed the use of two da Vinci surgical robots.

(Robotic Surgery Demonstration Using da Vinci Surgical System | Future Trends)

These surgical robots allow surgeons to perform delicate and complex operations that are minimally invasive. The latest model of the da Vinci is equipped with four robotic arms that complement surgeons’ work by enhancing their vision, dexterity, and precision via a console.  For Alessandro, his role as a nurse has changed from handing off scalpels in the operation room to providing advice to the surgeon behind the robotic console, as well as offering reassurance and emotional support to the patient.

This got me wondering about the short and long-term implications and ethics of using medical robots like da Vinci.  Will increasing reliance on sophisticated robots turn the hospital workers into lower-paid service personnel?  Will medical robots change the authority of doctors and their relationship with patients? Questions like these were also asked by the European Parliament in late 2016.



In preparation for a European-wide public consultation on robotics and artificial intelligence, and to better inform potential future regulations and legal implications in the EU, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) released its foresight study exploring the ethics of cyber-physical systems (CPS) up to the year 2050. The report acts as a primer on how the EU and its member states may envisage and interpret the legal and ethical concepts of human safety, privacy, integrity, dignity, intimacy, autonomy and data ownership in an automated and digitalized future.

Cyber-physical systems (CPS) are “technical systems of networked computers, robots, and artificial intelligence (AI) that interact with the physical world”.  Similar to medical robots, self-driving vehicles that use AI and sensors to navigate other vehicles and obstacles with near-autonomy on the road are an example of CPS.

RELATED: Information Technology and the US Workforce: Tech@Work Digital Library

The foresight report provides a technical horizon scan of seven domains of CPS, divided into short- and long-term trends.  It also delves into the social, technological, environmental, economic, political, ethical and demographic impacts (STEEDPED) of technological change. The seven domains covered are 1) disabled people and seniors, 2) healthcare, 3) agriculture and food supply, 4) manufacturing, 5) energy and critical infrastructure, 6) logistics and transport, and 7) security and safety.  Several of the technical horizon scans, including those focused on disabled and elderly people, healthcare, and agriculture noted that the integration of CPS into society will create workforce and business model disruptions.

It explores important moral and ethical questions around safety, responsibility and liability when it comes to CPS– ultimately asking who is responsible in the case of failures. What is the legal nature of robots and their rights and duties?  Furthermore, data ownership, privacy concerns, and inquiries into human relations with smart machines need to be examined and regulations updated to ensure that individuals are not harmed (similar to the Do No Harm Principle) and the desired benefits outweigh negative consequences.

This EU foresight report complements the Go-To Resources on Tech@Work published this winter.  For more resources, including infographics and videos, go to our new Technology@Work Digital Library by clicking immediately below.


Further Resources: