IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - March 2018 - 38

beings and enshrined law is a respect for the dignity of
human beings regardless of race, class, sex, or ability. It
has been necessary to enshrine these rights in juridicallegal systems because unfortunately, the history of
humanity is littered with abuse and exclusion including
slavery, racism, and genocide.
On our research team there were a variety of perspectives about what makes us human, and what are
the similarities and differences between humans and
machines. As a research collective we approach these
issues in different ways. It is fortunate to work in a scientific community that allows this diversity of perspective. In this paper however, we have tried to consider
the consequences of using particular kinds of models
of autism that go onto inform the premises and consequential practice of the research and development into
the robots for children with autism. Robotic science,
clinical psychotherapy (influenced by the biomedical
model of disability and difference), and the ethics of
autism and robotics construct, investigate, and problematize issues in very different ways. As an interdisciplinary team we have approached the issue of autism
and robots from different perspectives: experimental,
clinical, engineering, philosophical, and anthropological. Synthesizing these approaches can be challenging
as each discipline has its own vocabulary, history,
methodologies, and unique data preferences.

Future Steps
During our first wave of ethics studies [8] that were built
around a quantitative survey we found that support for
robot therapy for children with autism was viewed positively by our interview cohort including parents of children with autism. Our target population was parents
and therapists in Romania, Belgium, the Netherlands,
and England. Participants were recruited based on databases of persons involved in our past research and
messages were posted on relevant blogs, Facebook,
newsletters, and websites of autism organizations. A
total of 416 subjects participated in the study. Data from
22 participants were excluded from the analysis since
their responses were incomplete.
In this study conducted in 2014, 23% of participants
were parents of children with ASD and 17% of the participants were therapists or teachers of children with
ASD. The analysis of the distribution of responses to
the first two questions, ''It is ethically acceptable that
social robots are used in therapy for children with
autism'' (85% agree) and ''It is ethically acceptable that
social robots are used in healthcare'' (85% agree) indicate that a great majority of the respondents agree
with using robots in the health-care system, including
in robot assisted therapy for ASD children. This is
somewhat surprising, given that according to the

38

Eurobarometer study many people in Europe do not
accept the use of robots in healthcare. Note the difference with the Eurobarometer results about care mentioned above; apparently the autism community is far
more positive about using robots in healthcare, including in autism therapy. The results from this research
study can be found at [8].
In order to build on this trust offered by parents it
is proposed to embed humanistic ethics in any study
of robots and autism, and always situate the person
with autism as a social human being with important
intimate attachments. A child with autism does not
have an absent sociality, but an different sociality. The
burden on people with autism can be eased when
people around the autistic person gain more awareness of the difficulties of social communication.
Anthropologists Ochs and Solomon [29] referred to
this as an "autistic sociality" rather than an absent or
deficient sociality.
The autism community is not a homogenous community, but is made up of medical experts, educationalists, children and adults with autism, and autism
advocates. Any research into the development of robots
for children with autism must consider that autism narratives are influenced by a heterogeneous set of voices,
often contradictory, and conflictual. From the ethics
perspective, it is important that this heterogeneity is
taken into account when developing robots for children
with autism.
Finally, as a generation of children with autism is
exposed to robots in experimental settings in research
labs, or in therapeutic settings in clinics, what will be
the long-term consequence of these therapeutic interventions for the children? What will be the child's memories of their own experiences? Will children as they
become adults reflect on these encounters positively?
These are questions we are not able to answer, but are
important to consider in the here and now.

Acknowledgment
This paper was funded as part of Seventh Framework
Programme, grant agreement number: 611391. Development of Robot-Enhanced therapy for children with
Autism spectrum disorders (DREAM).

Author Information
Kathleen Richardson, Mark Coeckelbergh, and Kutoma
Wakunuma are with De Montfort University, Leicester, U.K.
Erik Billing and Tom Ziemke are with the University of
Skövde, Sweden.
Pablo Gómez and Bram Vanderborght are with Vrije
Universiteit Brussel, Belgium.
Tony Belpaeme is with the University of Plymouth,
Plymouth, U.K.

IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

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march 2018



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