The Rise of Smart Machines Puts Spotlight on Robot Rights

Robot Rights
STAR WARS, STAR WARS US 1977 YOU MUST CREDIT LUCASFILMS MARK HAMILL as Luke Skywalker right with C-3P0 Date 1977. Photo by: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection(10341731)

Given the complexity of human conversation, building a machine capable of engaging in lengthy verbal exchanges is a daunting task. But if we could build such a machine, Turing argued, we ought to treat it as though it’s a thinking, feeling being.

Mark Goldfeder, an Atlanta-based rabbi and Emory University law professor, has reached a similar conclusion: If an entity acts human, he wrote recently, “I cannot start poking it to see if it bleeds. I have a responsibility to treat all that seem human as humans, and it is better to err on the side of caution from an ethical perspective.”

The obvious conclusion is that rights ought to be accorded not on the basis of biology but on something even more fundamental: personhood.

What rights?

If we wind up recognizing some intelligent machine as a person, which legal rights would we be obliged to bestow on it? If it could pass the Turing test, we might feel it would deserve at least the right to continued existence. But Robert Sparrow, a philosopher at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, thinks that’s just the beginning. What happens, he wonders, if a machine’s “mind” is even greater than a human’s? In a piece that appeared recently on, he writes: “Indeed, not only would it be just as wrong to kill a machine that could pass the Turing test as to kill an adult human being, but, depending on the capacities of the machine, it might even be more wrong.”

Maybe that makes sense from the perspective of pure logic. But Ryan Calo, an expert in robotics and cyber law at the University of Washington in Seattle, says our system of laws is unlikely to bend that far. “Our legal system reflects our basic biology,” he says. If we one day invent some sort of artificial person, “it would break everything about the law, as we understand it today.”

For Andrews, the key issue is the entity’s right to have its own interests recognized. Of course, it may be tricky determining what those interests are — just as it can be hard for people from one culture to understand the desires of people from another. But when we recognize something as a person, we’re obligated to at least try to do the right thing, she says. “If we realize that something is actually a ‘someone,’ then we have to take their interests into account.”

And perhaps it’s not so far-fetched to imagine that those interests might include continued existence — in which case we might want to think twice before reaching for the off button.