Robot Rights

Will the next hot political controversy be over robot marriage? The Financial Times reports on a study reviewing rights for conscious robots:

The next time you beat your keyboard in frustration, think of a day when it may be able to sue you for assault. Within 50 years we might even find ourselves standing next to the next generation of vacuum cleaners in the voting booth.

Far from being extracts from the extreme end of science fiction, the idea that we may one day give sentient machines the kind of rights traditionally reserved for humans is raised in a British government-commissioned report which claims to be an extensive look into the future.

Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.

“If we make conscious robots they would want to have rights and they probably should,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Centre of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Right Wing News argues that “machines should never have ‘rights.'” This is because “They’re not born, they have no souls, and if they seem to possess human traits, it’s only because that’s how they’ve been programmed.” This gets to the heart of what consciousness is, and while Right Wing News can use the religious idea of a soul to answer, I do not believe this is a question which can be answered right now.

This will not really be a concern unless we develop machines with consciousness–and I mean truly conscious and not cleverly programmed machines which appear to be conscious. If a robot/android which is conscious like Star Trek’s Mr. Data could really be developed in the future I see no question that such beings deserve rights. Of course the possibility that a machine could ever be conscious such as Data has not yet been established.

A simplistic answer such as that robots have no soles leads to strange results. On the one hand such a mind set would never provide rights to Data as, no matter how clearly he is conscious, it could never be said that he was born and has no sole. In contrast we see the religious right granting rights to embryos consisting of a small number of cells, and lacking a central nervous system which prevents them from approving of embryonic stem cell research.


  1. 1
    battlebob says:

    This is an early edition of Sci-Fi Friday right?
    Come on Ron…you are trying to see who really takes the bait.
    You need a worm on that hook…

    Am leaving for Chicago soon…everyone have a great Holiday season…


  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    I would have normally held this story until Friday for SciFi Friday but as several political blogs have commented and the article is featured at Memeorandum I didn’t want to delay it.

    This isn’t a totally non-serious post. Obviously I would not have written a post on rights for robots out of the blue, but when a real study is posted and reviewed in a major publication such as the Financial Times it becomes a valid topic of discussion. Considering the consequences of hypothetical rights for robots can provide insight on how we determine who/what is deserving of rights–such as with embryos.

    I especially felt it was of signficance in considering the concept of rights as it shows a significant difference between my views and that proposed by many conservatives. Some conservative bloggers do not see a concious robot as even being possible because it would have no soul. From a scientific point of view I do not know if this is possible, but if a study wants to speculate on the ethical consequences of such a development I find it worth discussing. Consciousness might never be possible in robots but it is also possible that consciousness is a product of the complexity of the human brain and can be replicated in sufficiently complex machines. In contrast I question the conservative viewpoint that prevents embryos lacking a central nervous system (and which are often fated for destruction) from being used for stem cell research.

    Both the nature of consciousness (in relation to comments on some of Chopra’s blog posts) and stem cell research are topics addressed here in the past and an article which provided a starting point to tie the two together was of interest.

  3. 3
    kj says:

    Good holidays to you too, Bob.

  4. 4
    kj says:


    Data had a cat, as I recall. Ergo, Data has a soul (imo).
    But I think there might be human beings among us whose claim to consciousness is questionable.

    A muddle! 😉

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