My response to the EU’s intentions to grant robots ‘Electronic Personhood’ and the Open Letter to the European Commission

shutterstock_506661994I am one of the scientist that signed the Open Letter to the European Commission as a reaction to the EU’s intentions to grant robots and other intelligent machines ‘Electronic Personhood’. I agree with the suggestion that robots should not have moral status at this time and should not be considered capable of having rights. At the moment, there is no robot or other intelligent machine that is ‘smart’ enough to make the assignment of “personhood” logically acceptable.

However, I disagree with the blunt rejection of rights for robots, as drawn up in the Open Letter to the EU. One of the arguments in the letter says that granting human rights to robots would violate human rights. That’s right if you look at the matter as “only humans can have human rights”. Although this is correct, the problem lies in the bigotries nature of such formulations. In the past, many people were excluded from equal rights: socially lower classes, women, people from ethnic minorities, and more recently the LGBTQ community. And the problem is that those who already are granted with the rights determine who else will or will not be receptive of the same rights. If, on the other hand, the words in the letter mean that robot rights conflict with the rights that people practice; that hold true for all rights (a.k.a., freedom of speech vs. right for equality and non-discrimination).

Robot rights image resized compressedFor many the discussion on endowing robots with personhood evolve around liability and responsibility. It is about who should hold responsible or pay for accidents, violations and other illegal practices. But “personhood” is a multidimensional concept and includes a combination of rights and responsibilities. And the issue is too complicated for the rigid “never” in the Open Letter to the EU. Perhaps there is a need for new legal categories that contain a more graded solution.

There are more examples of non-human entities having rights. Companies are legal entities. Though, they still have actual people behind the scenes that represent that company. But other examples are New Zealand’s Wanganui River and the River Ganges in India; both are also legal entities and do not have people representing them. Grating these rivers with same legal rights as humans is the result of conservational measures implemented by activists to use the local legislation to protect nature. I am not saying that I agree with this, but it is a consequence of the ontological limitations of our current legislation.

The problem lies in the dominant anthropocentric concept of the word “personhood”. This requires multiple legal categories; which is still under discussion. A “never” as stated in the Open Letter is exceptional and exclusive, while there are still many debatable points to be revolved. The “never” shuts down such debates even before they have started. But it also too soon to give robots and other autonomous technologies “electronic personhood”. Now is the time to start discussing the many open issues of robot rights; not a time for final decisions.

When robots actually become self-conscious, it would be hypocritical and unfair of us humans to deny such robots the status of “personhood.” But to date we are still very far away from such a critical point in our history.