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Granting Robots Legal Rights Raises Major Ethical Concerns

Are we becoming legally reckless when it comes to AI?

Three recent developments in robotics and artificial intelligence are raising eyebrows among even the most optimistic of futurists and simultaneously intensifying concerns harbored by AI alarmists.

Robots being granted legal rights

Last October in Saudi Arabia, Sophia—a robot created by Hanson Roboticswas granted honorary citizenship during a presentation at the Future Investment Initiative.

When asked about her newfound title, the robot responded: “I am very honored and proud of this unique distinction. This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship.”

In Tokyo, Shibuya Mirai was also awarded official resident status in the city’s Shibuya ward. What’s unique about this move is Shibuya Mirai is a chatbot: an artificial intelligence programmed to respond like a nine-year-old boy.

In China, a robot successfully passed the initial written exam to become a physician. Developed by iFlytek Co Ltd., the robot scored 456 on the test—which is 96 points above what is required to pass. While this may not constitute legal rights per se, the AI is being given a special privilege in the medical field.

Of the creation, a spokesman for iFlytek said: “General practitioners are in severe shortage in China’s rural areas. We hope AI can help more people access quality medical resources.”

Publicity stunts and real harm


Dig a little deeper and it’s clear that these official agencies giving technological devices acknowledgement—that until previously had only been granted to human beings—has less to do with developments in AI and more to do with publicity.

No one really thinks that Sophia deserves her Saudi citizenship. Sure, she’s sophisticated but she’s far from being able to pass a stringent Turing Test. For the record, the Turing Test—named after legendary mathematician Alan Turing—is meant to test a computer’s ability to pass itself off as human via text conversations.

Similarly, giving the Shibuya Mirai chatbot resident status is more about getting the ward’s residents to become more comfortable talking to their local government than the program having true intelligence.

Finally, the robot from iFlytek may have passed the written exam to become a doctor but that’s a far cry from doing anything except answering questions. Despite the company’s statement about similar robots eventually assisting human physicians, iFlytek Chairman Liu Qingfeng said that the robot “…is not meant to replace doctors. Instead, it is to promote better people-machine cooperation so as to boost efficiency.”

The true cost of reckless robot rights

It would be reckless to dismiss these developments as harmless stunts intended to give robot manufacturers more exposure.

For example, women in Saudi Arabia have been critical of Sophia’s citizenship, pointing out that the robot has more rights than they do. They cite that the robot made her presentation without wearing a headscarf and did not have a legally required male guardian present.

This is particularly disturbing when so many countries have seen a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, making granting official standings to robots insulting to those seeking asylum.

In regards to sex, developers may be facing unforeseen legal challenges if the software used for their products is considered to be a citizen of another country. Let’s consider Realbotix, the sex robot project developed by Matt McMullen that has involved engineers associated with Hanson Robotics, and has used some of Sophia’s AI. Could the Realbotix sex robot then be considered to have Saudi citizenship?

Your doll could be more legal than you

If this does occur, someone will no doubt find a legal loophole around it, which makes this even more problematic. Hypothetically someone could very well end up playing with a sexbot, one that gives them physical or even emotional pleasure but has more legal rights than they do.

Keep the law out of it for now

In the end, it’s important to celebrate innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence. However, it is supremely unwise to do so in a way that involves the law.

Because, unlike artificial intelligences, the legal system is an ancient and often ruthless mechanism. It can be far more like the terrifying murder machines of fiction than our friendly new robots.

Image sources: AI for GOOD Global Summit, Lwp Kommunikáció, Steve Rainwater

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