Should We Root for Robot Rights?

Instead of worrying that robots will be our next overlords, they could teach us to be better humans

Evan Selinger
Feb 16, 2018 · 5 min read

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A few months ago, Saudi Arabia granted honorary citizenship to Sophia, a robot that’s smart enough to beat Jimmy Fallon at rock-paper-scissors and possibly motivated enough to ask Chrissy Teigen for makeup tips.

It was a poorly conceived public relations stunt for promoting a tech expo, and critics immediately clapped back. The uproar was predictable since the robot was given more rights than the region’s human women, who are prohibited from going out in public without a male guardian and must adhere to the state’s strict dress code.

If there’s a silver lining to the debacle, it’s this. The ridiculous affair got people thinking about an important philosophical question: Should robots ever be designed that deserve rights for real — genuine robot rights?

This is a complex question. It’s not another version of figuring out how to decide if awesome robots are owed something morally and legally special.

In the more familiar version of the problem, robots get the grand prize of rights for remarkable achievements: becoming fully autonomous, passing a hardcore Turing test, proving that they’re self-aware, or developing the capacity to suffer.

It’s hard to say which accomplishment, if any, merits winning the ultimate award. The matter is heavily debated, and since robots evoke powerful feelings of hope and fear, opinions will continue to differ.

Let’s try not to think about what robots should be entitled to if they ever did cross the all-important finish line. Also, leave aside speculation over whether roboticists could ever get their inventions to next level of existence if they put their minds to it and get enough funding. We should concentrate instead on whether society should actually be rooting for the Chariots of Fire theme music to play with the hope that robot equals will walk among us.

According to Joanna Bryson, an influential artificial intelligence scholar, society should currently be taking active measures to keep robots off the racetrack entirely and ensure they are only designed to remain our property and never aspire to rise above their proper station.

If someday a building is on fire and the people running from it aren’t sure whether to grab the robot or the human, it’s proof positive, in Bryson’s view, that society went down the wrong path and made profoundly poor choices along the way.

Humans Are Already Failing at Moral Inclusion

It’s easy to be sympathetic to this outlook, especially if you think of morality as a resource like food and recognize that humans already have way too many mouths to feed. It’s not just that people are going hungry around the world, with preventable deaths happening every day. It’s also the fact that humans routinely struggle to treat people who are different with respect.

Sexism, racism, classcism, and nationalism, just to name a few pervasive, terrible “isms,” continue to be powerful and destructive forces. As the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements testify, moral inclusivity remains out of our reach. Throw in how much more likely we are to be concerned with problems occurring in our own backyards than with suffering we can tune out, and the struggles activists experience when campaigning for animal rights and environmental rights, and it’s easy to despair at the practical likelihood of further expanding our moral circle.

How can we even dream of taking on more obligations, like duties to robots, when so many existing needs go unmet, starved of the massive resources necessary to make institutional changes?

There are two more aspects of this problem: one social, the other legal. Socially, Bryson worries that humans are already too willing to sacrifice messy life interactions for phones and screens. In a world where robots are increasingly engaging, how motivated would we be to deal with other people directly?

And legally, if the law recognizes robots as “electronic persons” — a possibility the European parliament is considering — Bryson’s fear is that the vision for stopping autonomous systems from running wild will be as insufficient as current approaches for holding corporations accountable. Instead of creating new mechanisms for responsible innovation, Bryson foresees bad — or even careless — actors using robots as “liability management” tools for evading legal responsibility. “Don’t blame me,” we’ll hear. “Blame Cortana’s emancipated granddaughter!”

Regulatory Frameworks

Maybe there’s a better way forward — one where machines aren’t kept firmly in their machine-only place, humans don’t get wiped out Skynet-style, and our humanity isn’t sacrificed by giving robots a better deal.

While the legal challenges ahead may seem daunting, they pose enticing puzzles for many thoughtful legal minds, who are even now diligently embracing the task. Annual conferences like We Robot — to pick but one example — bring together the best and the brightest to imagine and propose creative regulatory frameworks that would impose accountability in various contexts on designers, insurers, sellers, and owners of autonomous systems.

From the application of centuries-old concepts like “agency” to designing cutting-edge concepts for drones and robots on the battlefield, these folks are ready to explore the hard problems of machines acting with varying shades of autonomy. For the foreseeable future, these legal theories will include clear lines of legal responsibility for the humans in the loop, particularly those who abuse technology either intentionally or though carelessness.

The social impacts of our seemingly insatiable need to interact with our devices have been drawing accelerated attention for at least a decade. From the American Academy of Pediatrics creating recommendations for limiting screen time to updating etiquette and social mores for devices while dining, we are attacking these problems through both institutional and cultural channels.

We see support from the designers themselves as Silicon Valley insiders rush to the confessional to testify about “tech hijacking our minds.” Authors like law professor Brett Frischmann and myself are directly challenging the root causes behind smart devices reengineering our habits and outlooks and proposing solutions.

Social evolutions are messy and may follow a crooked path, but in the same way that tobacco went from king of cool to social misfit, there is plenty of reason to believe we can find ways to enjoy the personal connections and information sharing while learning to limit the antisocial influences.


Finally, the problem of having limited resources to address the inhumanity of humans, along with the moral and ecological crises we face, is real. But it might be better to see where these issues all merge and how approaches to one might be applicable to others.

In Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong, ethicist Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen, a professor of history and philosophy of science, make the case that by having social conversations about human-robot ethics and developing the tools to teach robots right from wrong, we may well advance our understanding of human ethics.

Along the way, we’ll have the chance to run tests on artificial “social agents” that may teach us about how humans interact as well. By researching individual and group interactions, we can develop new strategies for promoting effective cooperation and create new approaches for educating humans (communities, groups, nations) how to treat each other more equitably.

Engineers have drawn inspiration and designed practical applications after using nature as an R&D lab, a process known as biomimicry. There are computer scientists and ethicists who believe corollary technological and ethical insights may be gained from studying programming variations in robots. Perhaps we can become better humans through “robomimicry.”

Evan Selinger

Written by

Prof. Philosophy at RIT. Latest book: “Re-Engineering Humanity.” Bylines everywhere.

When Robots Rule The World
When Robots Rule The World
When Robots Rule The World

About this Collection

When Robots Rule The World

As robots become more sophisticated — more like us — will we feel the need to give them civic rights, or should they always remain our slaves? Should we limit how ‘human’ robots can seem, or should we hope to make them in the best image of ourselves. The future is complicated.

As robots become more sophisticated — more like us — will we feel the need to give them civic rights, or should they always remain our slaves? Should we limit how ‘human’ robots can seem, or should we hope to make them in the best image of ourselves. The future is complicated.

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