Articles  |    |  August 27, 2020

Societal and Ethical Issues in HRI

Article by Ricarda Wullenkord and Friederike Eyssel.
Published in Service and Interactive Robotics.

Purpose of the Review:

The purpose of this review is to give an overview of the societal and ethical issues in human-robot interaction, (HRI), mainly focusing on the literature of the last five years.

Recent Findings:

Both general ethical challenges associated with robot deployment and those specific to human-robot interaction are addressed and complemented by discussions of ethics within HRI research, ethics related behavior towards robots, as well as ethics and robot rights. Moreover, we discuss ethical challenges in sensitive contexts such as medicine, rehabilitation, and care. We conclude our review by providing an overview of the key ethics frameworks and guidelines to inspire researchers, developers, and stakeholders alike.


This review offers a timely overview of the state-of-the art societal and ethical issues that arise from the ever more steady integration of robots into human society. We exemplify the key issues and debates in the field by mainly covering the literature of the past five years.


Since the introduction of home computers in 1977, rarely has a new technology divided the opinions of people in the same way as robots. Although continuously growing, the current market for personal domestic, and service robots (12.2 million units sold in 2018 worldwide), or “social” robots for entertainment (4.1 million units sold in 2018 worldwide) is small, especially in comparison to the deployment of industrial robots (154 million units sold in 2018 in China alone, 371.5 million units in the 15 biggest markets of the world). However, it is likely that particularly domestic and social robots will become increasingly prevalent, until one day, robots at home will be as common as home computers are now. Meanwhile, a range of open questions emerges and requires discourse. For instance, researchers need to address the societal and ethical impact associated with the introduction of (social) robots into our everyday lives.

Ethics in general can be defined as principles that distinguish between behavior that helps and behavior that harms. Roboethics is a research area underlying all ethical issues with regard to robots and robotic assistance. Roboethics or robot ethics incorporate “ethical questions about how humans should design, deploy, and treat robots”. More specifically, ethical robot behavior is—in this context—understood as “an agent’s behavior governing a system of acts that affects others (i.e., patients) according to moral rules”. The importance of ethics in research on robots becomes even more obvious in light of the vast amount of literature on ethics in human-robot interaction (HRI): A literature search on google scholar offers 14.500 results for “ethics and human-robot interaction”, searching for terms like “ethics and robots”, or “ethics and robotics” leads to over 150.000 and over 136.000 results, respectively. The topic of ethics in (social) robotics has been discussed in the literature for decades. The current work will, however, only provide a glimpse into the most recent issues and debates. We do so by focusing on the last five years of research on ethical and societal issues in the field of HRI. [ . . . ]