By Giulia Bovassi

Robo-ethics: hybridization and humanization of rehabilitation technology Masterclass in “Neurobioethics and Robo-ethics”, 2nd lesson.  Interdisciplinary  Research Group on Neurobioethics, 23 November 2018


Luciano Bissolotti, physician and rehabilitation specialist, responsible for the recovery and functional rehabilitation service of the “Domus Salutis” in Brescia, linked the theme of the humanization of the technique to the therapeutic-rehabilitative value of robotics, within the ethical question of relational change which new technology brings.

This second lesson of the Masterclass in “Neurobioethics and Robo-ethics” explored access to health care connected to robotic application through a historical sequence of an evolutionary process of engineering, medical, informatics and technical innovation. “Biography and biology with a history and narration, and not simply matter”, through prof. Bissolotti’s words. Recalling the etymological concept of the term “robot“, whose reference is to the word “robota“, refering to forced service or work, Bissolotti highlighted a fundamental aspect we must keep in mind when talking about robotics, which serves the human being: from the earliest origins, already around 1920, robotics’ main purpose was service, not to “robotize the person or its needs.” On the contrary, the goal was to give greater human needs greater humanity by improving the quality of life, which is exactly what Domus Salutis has been trying to do for years in the rehabilitation context. This humanization, while being among the preferred lines of research internationally, is not the only purpose explored in research.  

As a field with strong attraction in many economic areas of scientific investigation, there is a clear need to rediscover common instruments of dialogue that guarantee means to understand human-technical relations. Robotics, as a neologism, was coined in response to an inadequate ethics without update of subjects such as substantial, subject, human being, good and evil, liberty, will, etc. Some questions were already present in the literature of the 1980s’ with Asimov, who proposed three laws of robotics: Can a mechanical robot be harmful? Can we speak of empathy for robots? Can they regret? The three laws are today synthesized into a kind of “zero law,” by which it would not be permissible to invent robots harmful to human beings or which would perform actions that would place humans at risk, an assertion which in medicine and health refers to the principle of benefiting the patient and avoiding harm. Following the Hippocratic tradition, doctors follow a deliberate cost-benefit analysis to find the most beneficial treatment, even when the recovery of full functionality is unlikely. This approach is especially difficult to follow in the complex case of neurorehabilitation in which there are numerous clinical factors following an injury to the nervous system. Some propose introducing machines adapted to the patient through progressive motivational incentive and motor-therapeutic repetitiveness. This treatment at the vanguard of human-machine interaction would off a “soft paternalism.”

However, questions remain regarding the border between therapy and enhancement. Bissolotti explained the coevolution that is taking place between man and robot. This development demands that we ask how and in what way the thinking mind begins to resemble something other than itself, perhaps even machines as it seeks to compete in the evolutionary race.