Robo rights and responsibilities

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

Should human rights be extended to robots? Should they be protected from harm and abuse? Are they liable for mistakes or actions and decisions that they make with negative outcomes? These were some of the questions that came to me when I heard that the EU may consider granting robots a special status of personhood.

At the start of last year, the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament urged the EU Commission to put forward EU rules on robotics including proposals that would grant robots “electronic person” status.

robot cyborg android girl with big collar dressThe report states on page 5: “Whereas, ultimately, robots’ autonomy raises the question of their nature in the light of the existing legal categories – of whether they should be regarded as natural persons, legal persons, animals or objects – or whether a new category should be created, with its own specific features and implications as regards the attribution of rights and duties.”

Later, on page 12, the report’s author calls on the Commission, when carrying out an impact assessment of its future legislative instrument, to explore the implications of all possible legal solutions such as “creating a specific legal status for robots so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations.”

To make sense of this, I need to come up some definitions. In very rudimentary terms, a natural person is a flesh and blood human being, a legal person can be a public or private organisation, an animal is non-human, animate living being, and an object is a thing. Could future legislation, mean that one day a robot could be a legal person also?

And, is there any precedent for this? Has an object been granted legal personhood? In fact, it has. The object in question is actually a land feature, the Te Awa Tupua river in New Zealand. The river is regarded by the local Maori tribe as an ancestor and in March 2017, it was recognised in law as being a living entity. This was the first time this has ever happened and came as the result of 140 years of fighting by the Whanganui tribe.

Robot cyborg strategisingAnother world-first took place in 2017 when AI-powered robot Sophia was awarded citizenship of Saudi Arabia in October. The awarding of Saudi citizenship on the social humanoid robot, made by Hanson Robotics, coincided with a tech summit, and so was seen by some as a PR stunt and by others as a load of tosh.

Critics pointed out that Sophia, which is presented as female, has more rights than many female humans in Saudi Arabia. The robot had the right not conform to the country’s dress code of wearing a hijab and an abaya – an ankle length garment. The robot also had the right to appear without a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother or uncle. In addition to those rights, I wonder what responsibilities the robot has? Does it have to vote? Pay taxes? Perform community service?

A month later in November the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific named Sophia the robot as its first non-human innovation champion. I wonder what innovative ideas it has? Also, in November, Tokyo became the first city to give residence to an AI known as Shibuya Mirai. The AI firstly only existed as a chatbot on a messaging app, aiming to connect citizens of the area with the local government. But where exactly does it reside? And how?

The bestowing of human-like status on Sophia the robot and Shibuya Mirai could be seen as trailblazing or a slippery slope. While AI is meant to make our lives easier, as it continues to advance at this rapid pace, it willl force us to question and debate what it means to be human.



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