Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Rights of Robot

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about wild predictions of human level AI. Another prediction that has caught the attention of the general press is about robot rights. See for instance this piece in the otherwise sensible Financial Times: uk report says robots will have rights, or the BBC technology news here, and elsewhere.

The prediction that provoked these responses is worth a look:
Robo-rights: Utopian dream or rise of the machines?

The report, by Outsights - Ipsos MORI, was part of the UK government's strategic horizon scanning exercise and is pretty brief at a little over 700 words. In a nutshell, the report says that if robots gain artificial intelligence then calls may be made for them to be granted human rights. The report doesn't make it clear whether such calls would be made by humans on robots' behalf, or by the robots themselves (although the only link given is to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Robots, which seems to imply the former). The likelihood of this is rated 1 out of 3 stars (33%..?), and timescale 21-50+ years. The report, which is clearly written from a legal perspective (nothing wrong with that), goes on to make some frankly surreal speculations about robots voting, becoming tax payers or enjoying social benefits like housing or health-care.

Hang on, is this really a UK government commissioned report, or a script from Futurama..? I'm suprised it didn't go on to warn of loutish robots subject to ASBOs.

Ok, let's get real.

Do I think robots will have (human) rights within 20-50 years? No, I do not. Or to put it another way, I think the likelihood is so small as to be negligible. Why? Because the technical challenges of moving from insect-level robot intelligence, which is more or less where we are now, to human-level intelligence are so great.

Do I think robots will ever have rights? Well, perhaps. In principle I don't see why not. Imagine sentient robots, able to fully engage in discourse with humans, on art, philosophy, mathematics; robots able to empathise or express opinions; robots with hopes, or dreams. Think of Data from Star Trek. It is possible to imagine robots smart, eloquent and persuasive enough to be able to argue their case but, even so, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that robot emancipation would be rapid, or straightforward. After all, even though the rights of man as now generally understood were established over 200 years ago, human rights are still by no means universally respected or upheld.

Why should it be any easier for robots?

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