Guglielmo Tamburrini. AI and Robotics in COVID-19: privacy, trust, and democracy protection

Gugliemo Tamburrini

Robin Williamson has asked professor Gugliemo Tamburrini for his opinion on the extent to which the restrictions imposed on our individual freedoms caused by the pandemic can be prolonged and even increases.  Guglielmo Tamburrini is an expert in the ethical, legal, social and socio-economic issues arising in human-computer and human-robot interaction. He is the professor of philosophy of science and technology at the University of Naples Federico II and works there in an electrical engineering and computer science department. He was the coordinator of the first European project on the ethics of robotics, in which also Scuola di Robotica was involved as a partner.


Williamson: Many thanks for joining us today. Now my first question today regards the constraints which flow from fundamental rights and freedoms even in times of emergency responses to coronavirus epidemics and these constraints on the use of AI robotic and technologies for collecting and processing personal data.

This is a very important question concerning more specifically the robotics technologies which are in the purview of Scuola di Robotica, like drones and other robotics technologies and systems integrated with the artificial intelligence, and information and communication technologies that may be used in these circumstances, especially to patrol and survey large areas for medical screening in COVID-19 pandemics. Today, as we know, these systems are collecting mobility data and are used also for surveillance purposes for compliance with quarantine. Clearly these uses of robots are very important to contrast the diffusion of the epidemics, but also they impinge on certain fundamental rights like personal autonomy and personal privacy.

For some greater goods like Public Health and the health of each and every one of the citizens of our democratic countries these rights may be occasionally and temporarily compressed. However, it’s very important to have this restriction properly justified by means of scientific knowledge, well-founded scientific opinion to explain, for example, what is the effectiveness of this measure or the need for these temporary restrictions, what is their expected duration and whether they are proportionate to the goal of preserving health. Also, intrusive techniques for collecting and processing and using data should be made transparent to the public opinion and there should be timely information about their use and also their dismissal.


Thank you. This brings me to another question which is that people are being asked to trust public authorities and firms which work for governments; in particular, to trust that only lawful and ethically permissible uses of their data will be made now. Is people’s trust well-founded?

Trust is a mutual relationship and of course, on the side of the public authorities of states and their agencies, people are being asked right now to trust them that this enhanced data collection will be exclusively used to prevent and contrast the spreading of the COVID 19 infection. Now the problem is that trust must be deserved on both sides. So of course authorities are asking us to respect certain rules of self-confinement or social distancing, which are very important if they are adopted by most if not by all people. But to deserve trust authorities must certainly provide, as I said before, transparent information and about this modified –  temporary modified – data collection regulation and especially also about the data anonymization that this procedure must involve. And also proportionality means that this procedure must be properly narrowed down, only to meet the public health goal.

Unfortunately, one must admit that the records of both governments and private firms in this respect are not immaculate, perhaps in unintended ways on many occasions.

Revelations by Edward Snowden showed that collection of data have been improperly used in some operations by the US NSA (National Security Agency. They massively collected data about citizens who live both in the US and other countries with no evident or compelling evidence in terms of security motivated reasons. And think also about the unethical use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytics. In this case, what happened was a manipulation of public opinion that impinged on the personal autonomy of people in the possibility of expressing their democratic vote. Not to mention the Chinese social credit system, and their overall governmental arrangements concerning personal data processing, which are obviously different from those that we are accustomed to, for example, in Europe or in North America. But let’ s recall, as a final example from many, Google’s participation in the Maven project. This was a project for the drone surveillance of large geographical areas and initially was intended for military reasons – it was a project by the Department of Defense of the United States – but for which the data of billions of Google users were jeopardized.


Yes, insufficient transparency, as you said. Do you think that Europe is ready to contrast surreptitious uses of Covid 19 pandemics to restrict democratic liberties and procedures? Consider for example the emergency legislation that was recently passed in Hungary.

What just happened in Hungary is a significant case in point. Essentially, one may summarize the situation by saying that the Hungarian Parliament in a certain sense temporarily suspended and abolished itself. This is a very strange step for democracy to undertake since democracy is a value and it must be protected even against democratic decision-making: so there are limits to place on democratic decision-making by Parliaments which attempt to “abolish” themselves, and these limits must be introduced precisely for the sake of democracy. For example, today we are accustomed to the idea that the sexual preferences are completely private matters that should not be curtailed by democratic decision-making or majority votes. In the same way, I would say – not only in times of coronavirus emergency – that we are not allowed to abolish democracy by means of democratic decision-making and I think that the recent Hungarian Parliament state of the emergency ruling comes close to abolishing democracy since it gives a temporarily unlimited authorization to rule by means of presidential decrees which go unchecked by Parliament.


Very interesting thought. Coming to robotics today, supporting our efforts against the COVID-19 virus. Do you think it is ethically praiseworthy and urgent to promote the resilience under the robustness of economic educational and social structures in the face of pandemic outbreaks? May robotics significantly contribute to this endeavor? And which ethical issues may arise and should be addressed when developing robotic technologies for greater societal resistance?

That’s of course very important. We were unprepared and the shock was strong. Resilience in the future, and especially robustness to these shocks are very important. Robots could help very much in this respect, and roboticists have been pointing this out all along since the beginning of the pandemics. Robots may help to keep factories operational in compliance with social distancing requirements. The current public health needs to provide new and very important ethically based motivations for extending automation. Robots could be more extensively used in logistics, delivery, public transportation.

All these applications bring with them serious ethical issues, which must be properly addressed. For example, some technological unemployment may ensue from this enhanced automation. Already Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, and pioneer in early day robotics and AI experimentation issued a public warning, around the middle of last century about massive unemployment which may derive from enhanced automation. We are talking about the possible short term or even long term unemployment implications of extensive automation. Moreover, the problem of distributive justice arises here too, in the sense of redistributing wealth which may be produced by robots.

Another very important issue which I think can be aggravated in this period is the digital and robotics divide because there may be people and even entire nations which are at risk of being left behind and so we’re to definitely address these problems. For this, especially as far as nations and peoples are concerned, we would need strong international coordination which, at the present time, is clearly insufficient – even to address the more properly public health hazards posed by the current coronavirus threats.

We have to monitor also the possible effects on any impoverishment of social life that may come with increased automation and digitalization of our lives. All of these are well-known ethical problems coming with automation. I think  Europe is in many ways well placed to address these problems, also because Europe has a good tradition in the privacy protection sector. We have the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, and a widespread culture of respect of the privacy of people. Recently, on March 19th, the European Data Protection Board released a declaration about the protection of personal data during the outbreak of this pandemic. It was recalled there the necessity of conforming personal data processing to the UN Charter of Fundamental Rights, jointly with the right to contest certain data processing measures, the recommendation of pursuing the anonymization of data and minimal intrusive procedures as much as one can. It was also recalled that all of this is subject to control by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. So we are in a relatively good position. One may leverage on this tradition and do a good job.


Clearly there’s a lot of work to be done obviously in this, and unfortunately, sometimes the technology goes faster than the legislation necessary to govern it. But as you say Europe is particularly well-placed to manage these issues which will ensue in a very near future

At least in principle…

We keep our fingers crossed. Professor Tamburrini, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you very much for your time today and for sharing your thoughts with us on these issues. Our watchers will be very keen to see this. Thank you very much for your time today.


Guglielmo Tamburrini (PhD 1987, Columbia University in New York) is Philosophy of Science and Technology Professor at Universita’ di Napoli Federico II in Italy. His main research interests concern ethical (and more generally ELSE) issues arising in the context of human-computer and human-robot interactions,. He acted as coordinator of the first European project on the ethics of robotics (CA ETHICBOTS, 2005-2008, VI FP). In 2014 he was awarded the Giulio Preti International Prize by the Regional Parliament of Tuscany (Italy) for his research and teaching activities on ethical and social implications of AI and robotic technologies. Member of ICRAC (International Committee for Robot Arms Control) and USPID (Italian Scientists Union for Disarmament). His most recent book (2020, in Italian) is “Etica delle macchine. Dilemmi morali per robotica e intelligenza artificiale” (Carocci, Roma). More info about research and publications at









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