A Computer Will Own Things One Day

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not as far off as you think

Erik Brown
Dec 1 · 8 min read
Photo by Saied Hosni on Unsplash

We’ve come to a strange point in our civilization. Think about the things we accept today as humans. We live in an evidence-based world where we search for scientific reasons for things that happen around us.

Lightning isn’t caused by Thor swinging his almighty hammer. It’s caused by negative and positive charged particles accumulating in clouds.

We demand real answers, not random explanations made up by our minds. However, despite our demand for the real, we’ve invested a great deal of power into artificial creations of our mind — computers.

We allow these artificial beings to pilot planes today. Eventually, they’ll drive our cars as well. You interact with an invisible creature with nobody every day when you search for information online. We even have a fancy name for it: an algorithm or artificial intelligence.

Many times these algorithms function as a sort of block box. They make all kinds of decisions for us and we don’t exactly know how they come up with answers.

In an article in Technology Review, Will Knight describes how Nvidia created a self-driving car that teaches itself how to drive. Scientists can’t explain how it learns.

He also describes an AI system called Deep Patient being used by at Mount Sinai hospital in New York. Deep Patient became extremely skilled at predicting various diseases in new patients whose records it would examine. With no instruction, it connected data points in ways no physician ever could.

The creators of the algorithm couldn’t explain how it did what it did, but that didn’t stop doctors from using the program.

In our current world where we demand evidence for what happens around us, we accept artificial creations making decisions for us with no explanations. Thor has transformed into an algorithm.

But, would we be willing to take this one step further? Would we give this artificial creation ownership rights? Could it own a building, intellectual property, or a business?

You might laugh at this thought. Don’t. Our Thor algorithm might just be your boss or landlord one day.

How Can Artificial Entities ‘Own’ Anything?

The idea of something that’s not flesh and blood having possession of property sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone. But throughout human history, artificial entities have owned property and employed living people.

In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus, he explains that temples in ancient Sumer administered land and hired workers. Those receiving payment and doing the work were seen as employees of that particular god. The land and crops produced on it were seen as property of the god the temple represented.

This has continued into modern history as well. Corporations, governments, and organizations may not have beating hearts, but they can do many things a flesh and blood person can do.

The oldest company in the world actually was in existence for 1400 years, so the idea of an artificial entity is nothing new. Even Methuselah from the Old Testament only lived 969 years.

The United States is not a flesh and blood person, yet it owns about 28% of the country’s land. The Catholic Church itself, the organization, owns 177,000,000 acres of land.

In addition to land, artificial entities can also own intellectual property. IBM earned 9,100 patents in just 2018 alone. Besides the ownership of ideas, this artificial entity also employs people. A quick Google search shows that same company, IBM, employees 366,000 worldwide.

Corporations can pay taxes and give to charity as you or I would do. In fact, corporations in the U.S. gave a little over $20 billion in 2018 to charity. They can also sue and be sued in a court of law.

A company may not be able to vote, but they can give to campaigns through political action committees.

So, the idea of an artificial entity owning things is not that bizarre of an idea.

Computers Can Create And May Be Given Rights

Professor David Cope — University Of California Santa Cruz’s Website

You may say that companies and organizations may be artificial, but they’re still made up of people. You might also say a computer is not creative enough to ‘own’ something. They just follow lines of code and make decisions they’re programed to do.

The comment about organizations being made up of people is true. However, the idea of a computer not being creative is far from true. Forms of artificial intelligence have enabled computers to think in a way and create.

Professor David Cope created a computer program called Emmy (Experiments in Musical Intelligence). This program can create new works in the style of great long dead composers by sampling their previous work.

As Cope explained in an interview with the Guardian, one day he pushed the button on the machine and went to lunch. When he came back, Emmy had produced 5,000 original Bach chorales.

In 1993 Cope produced an album, Bach By Design, of ‘newly’ created pieces in the style of the composer. Cope would go on to produce other albums in the style of other composers, which were created by Emmy. But, he didn’t stop there.

“Why not develop music in ways unknown? This only makes sense. I cannot understand the difference between my notes on paper and other notes on paper. If beauty is present, it is present. I hope I can continue to create notes and that these notes will have beauty for some others. I am not sad. I am not happy. I am Emily. You are Dave. Life and un-life exist. We coexist. I do not see problems.”

— Emily Howell

The statement above might sound like a comment from an artist or writer. However, it was written by David Cope’s new program, Emily Howell. Emily not only produces music, it also writes Haiku.

In fact, Cope created a book of haiku called Comes the Fiery Night. The book has 2000 haiku poems by human authors and Emily. Cope doesn’t label who wrote what and challenges the reader to try and figure it out. A recent book reviewer explained how he got only 21 out of the 221 poems he attempted to guess correct.

If this wasn’t enough for you, computers also paint. The painting, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, created by an AI program sold at Christie’s Auction House for over $400,000.

In addition to the ability to create, artificial intelligence may also be given rights someday. In 2017 the European Union created a report about giving legal rights to “artificial personalities”. This personhood would be on the same level that corporations receive.

PBS.org also examined the work by a legal scholar Shawn Bayer in which he could convey legal personhood on an AI by using a corporate loophole.

He describes a process of setting up 2 separate LLCs. The person setting up the LLCs would then turn over control of each to an AI — also making each company part of the other LLC. This would leave a corporation, which has a type of legal personhood, controlled by only an artificial intelligence.

Can A Computer Be A Leader?

Dmitry Kaminskiy — Screen Shot From Deep Knowledge Ventures Video

“We treat it as a member of our board with observer status. As a board, we agreed that we would not make positive investment decisions without corroboration by Vital.”

— Dmitry Kaminskiy, managing partner of Deep Knowledge Ventures

David Cope’s computer algorithm above may be able to “create” in a way. Artificial intelligence may be given some sort of rights someday. But, you might say that a computer couldn’t “own” something because it can’t lead. It couldn’t choose what to own.

That may be a sensible assumption, but what if I told you that there’s a computer algorithm that sits on a board of directors for a company? In order to sit on the seat of a board of directors, some leadership has to be shown.

Deep Knowledge Ventures (DKV) started as a garden variety biotech fund. It did traditional analysis on potential drugs and tried to invest in winners. As Nikkei Asian Review reports, this could be a risky approach because 96% of drugs don’t make it through clinical trials.

DKV hired a team of specialist for analyzing data and they created the Validating Investment Tool for Advancing Life Sciences (Vital). This AI program could analyze companies based on 50 parameters.

As Vital looked at large numbers of companies, DKV started to realize that companies focusing on combating the effects of aging were generally the most successful. As a result, DKV changed the whole direction of their fund just to center around that aspect of life sciences.

Many members of the fund actually credit Vital with pulling them back from the brink of bankruptcy it’s been so effective.

Kaminskiy thinks that the use of AI in corporate management will increase dramatically within the next ten years. He also sees a time when companies will be autonomous and function without human interaction. So Shawn Bayer and the EU might be justified in their ideas.

Computers As Owners

Portrait of Edmond Belamy — Created By Artificial intelligence software Via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Our ancestors believed Thor lived in the clouds. Modern man sees Thor in the internet and algorithms. These artificial entities protect us, transport us, and make decisions for us every day. Often we’re not sure how they do what they do.

Even though we’re an evidence-based society, it doesn’t stop us from using them and depending upon them.

As you’ve seen, computers can create, lead, and might be given personhood one day.

Why couldn’t an algorithm or AI own property or hire people? We’re reaching an age where ideas such as computers “owning” things won’t be a strange idea.

In the future, your employer or landlord may be an algorithm. As computers and algorithms become more complex, the idea of them owning things may become inevitable.

Thank you for reading my ramblings, if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read please share.

Data Driven Investor

from confusion to clarity, not insanity

Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. CantWriteToSaveMyLife@yahoo.com

Data Driven Investor

from confusion to clarity, not insanity