The issue of granting intelligent machines robot rights has drawn ambivalent responses from European legislators and members of the scientific committee following an appeal to grant robots personhood.
The European Union, in the recent years, has demonstrated itself as somewhat of a trendsetter in passing revolutionary legislation, especially when it has come to regulate the effects brought about by the rapid technological growth we are currently witnessing. After passing the GDPR, which, in the face of a blisteringly quick propagation of global interconnectivity, secures an individual's right to privacy, the governing body also passed the infamous articles 11 and 13, pertaining to the sharing of content over the internet. Similarly, in yet another such unprecedented legislative bid, the EU parliament is now contemplating whether to consider an artificially intelligent machine as a ‘person’ or not. This robot rights debate - where most legislators are pushing to grant robots personhood and scientists are opposing it - is increasingly becoming relevant to not only the global tech community but also to businesses worldwide and the general public. The result of this debate may impact the way organizations manage and operate intelligent machines.
Why Robot Rights Could Be a Good Idea
The robot rights debate that the European lawmakers are dealing with does not concern granting robots fundamental human rights per se. The debate, at least for now, pertains to legally recognizing robots and AI as ‘special person’ who should be granted certain rights and held accountable for their actions.
A Future Run by Robots
As artificially intelligent machines continue to grow human-like capabilities, they will replace more and more people from the global workforce. Under these circumstances, the robots will be used to perform increasingly complex tasks and may become a part of our everyday life. It's not that hard to imagine, considering how AI had become a part of our everyday life already. Thus, it's only a matter of time before AI and robots replace a majority or even entirety of the human workforce. This can have multiple social and economic consequences for humans.
The Consequences of Robotization
Currently, regardless of which nation you might be living in, you are provided for and protected by a government. The government needs funds to serve its subjects and take care of the welfare of everyone under its care. A key source of these funds is paid by the general public in the form of taxes, which is a portion of what they earn from their jobs. With rapid robotization, people will start losing jobs on a massive scale. Thus, the government will stop receiving funds as the workforce, or at least the human portion of it continues to decline. Eventually, if no alternate sources of funding are secured, the government may become incapable of supporting its populace. Similarly, as large numbers of people become unemployed, they will not have enough money to spend on things they want and need, leading to a large-scale economic slowdown.
Robot Personhood as a Potential Solution
To prevent a potential shortage of revenue and the consequent depreciation of governmental efficacy and relevance, the European Union had protectively sought to solve the problem by charting robot rights and recognizing robots as some sort of ‘persons’. The recommendations made in the appeal to the European lawmakers included a number of regulations that organizations using robots and AI must oblige to. One of the rules requires businesses to report the contribution of intelligent machines to the organizations’ overall financial results, and then accordingly collecting social security contributions and taxes as would be levied on an actual person working in the same role. Thus, the government can have enough funds to support its people, even in the face of mass robotization. The regulations also require organizations to take responsibility for damages caused by the robots in their possession. Regulations like these would at least help in making the transition to a completely robotized world smoother than it would be without these rules.
Ultimately, robot rights are about making humans morally obliged towards robots by granting them rights and analogous to human rights. However, robot rights may not be the ideal way forward when it comes to dealing with artificial intelligence.
A majority of the scientific community has voiced concerns over the European Parliament's consideration of robot rights. In fact, a group of AI researchers and experts had sent an open letter to the European Union asking them to reconsider the proposal to legalize robot rights.
Robots aren't Human
The biggest argument against providing robot rights is as simple as the fact that robots aren't human. No matter how smart they might become, they can truly become as complex, spontaneous, and emotional as human beings. Human beings and even other animals are much more complex in biology, which is, and will be hard to replicate even by the most advanced artificial systems. Machines are not yet capable of self-determined actions, i.e., doing things without any external influence or instruction to do so. And the lack of self-determination can be considered a good thing, since, if robots that are exceedingly smarter than us but lacking in empathy and sensitivity are driven by spontaneous thoughts, there is no way to assure things won't go wrong for us.
For us humans, the fact that we are capable of emotion - especially negative feelings such as pain - and the fact that every human, in the grand scheme of things, is completely unique and irreplaceable, makes us deserving of three security and protection offered by the fundamental human rights. Robots, on the other hand, are deliberately designed by humans to be a certain way. Even the most complex of artificial intelligence machines can be reproduced by using the same algorithms and training data. The memories of these machines can be backed up and imparted to other machines, while the human memory is non-transferable. If robots are to hold the same value as humans, legally or otherwise, they'll need to demonstrate much more than just high speed computational and processing capabilities.
Robots are Tools
Like it or not, ultimately, robots are created as tools that humans can use to achieve sourcing tasks. In that sense, a robot is no different from other electronic appliances, such as smartphones, television, automobiles, computers, etc. Although smartphones, with their AI-powered visual assistants, might seem intelligent and remotely human-like, they are just electronic devices that are designed and created to serve a purpose. These appliances don't ‘feel’ oppressed when overworked, or ‘feel’ pain in any way, like say, your pet dog would do. Hence we are justified in having animal rights but not robot rights (not at least yet).
As I've said many times before, the holy grail of AI and robotic research will always be to create a machine that is perfectly human in every aspect. However, it is crucial that AI developers remain wary of the fact that artificially intelligent machines if given enough leeway to think and act freely, there is no telling how bad things could get. However, AI and robotics are critical to humanity's foray into the future, as we explore radically new ideas, systems, and ways of living. Creating robots imbued with the highest degree of ethics should be a matter of focus, before contemplating robot rights.
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