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Should robots have rights?


Published: 5 December 2017 (GMT+10)
First appeared in CMI (UK/Europe) CMI Extra, June 2017.

Astonishing as it may seem, some people believe that robots should have rights. Yes, I really mean it. They think that the up and coming generation of ‘intelligent machines’ that will do the housework, weed the garden and politely attend to your every wish should be treated with proper respect.

Lawmakers at the European Union are arguing that the new generation of intelligent machines should have rights.

In May of last year, the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs issued a draft report making recommendations relating to laws that should be passed in respect of ‘intelligent machines’.1 In this they accept the possibility that man-made devices may, one day, become self-aware. As such, they are calling for “new rules which focus on how a machine can be held—partly or entirely—responsible for its acts or omissions” and are considering whether more sophisticated robots should have “the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations”.

This kind of thinking is not new. As far back as 1964, Professor Hilary Putnam wrote a paper in which he seriously considered the question, “Should robots have civil rights?” He concluded,

“If we are to make a decision, it seems preferable to me to extend our concept so that robots are conscious—for ‘discrimination’ based on the ‘softness’ or ‘hardness’ of the body parts of a synthetic ‘organism’ seems as silly as discriminatory treatment of humans on the basis of skin color.”2

According to Dr Richard Laing, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, intelligent machines may one day exhibit altruism and kinship. He wrote,

“If our machines attain this level of behavioral sophistication, it may finally not be amiss to ask whether they have not become so like us that we have no further right to command them for our own purposes, and so should quietly emancipate them.”3

Ryan Calo, an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington, warned that we may need laws in the future that deal with the challenges posed by robots demanding the right to vote.4

Making sense of the senseless

To many, such statements seem patently absurd, to the point where we find it hard to understand how anyone could make them. Yet, in a sense, these people are thinking perfectly logically, given the prevailing belief system under which academia now operate. According to Professor Richard Dawkins, humans are simply “survival mechanisms—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”5 Similarly Professor Anthony Cashmore stated, “The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.”6 If there is only matter and energy, and we are no more than evolved microbes, then we are no different to sophisticated machines. If human beings have ‘rights’, then why shouldn’t robots have them too?

Those holding to a biblical worldview, however, can answer these kind of questions intelligently and rationally. The account of creation in Genesis makes clear that people are fundamentally different to all other created things—including anything we humans can produce. Having created the animals, God made man, lifeless at first, so that a different kind of life might be imparted to him:

“The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).

People carry the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and have a spiritual as well as a physical nature. For this reason, and in contrast to everything else in creation (excepting angels), only humans can be understood to have rights and responsibilities. Similarly, only we can make choices for which we will one day be held responsible.

Futile thinking

Of those who reject God and the truth of Creation, the Apostle Paul remarked:

“For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking …” (Romans 1:21).

Tragically, we now live in a time when the world appears to have gone mad. The reason for this is that those in authority are no longer able to think rationally. Acceptance of the theory of evolution has blinded them, and they are no longer capable of normal processes of reason.

A society that does not consider it worth retaining the knowledge of God will inevitably come to embrace folly. Similarly, without a knowledge of God, and an understanding of our relationship to Him, it is impossible for us to think rightly about the world around us, and to deal appropriately with the torrent of ‘new ideas’ thrust upon us by the secular elite. As Christians, however, we have the Word of God to illuminate our path (Psalm 119:105), and this begins with the account of creation as the foundation for all that follows.

References and notes

  1. Delvaux, M., Draft report with recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics, 2015/2103(INL), European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs, 31 May 2016; europarl.europa.eu. Return to text.
  2. Putnam, H.W., Robots: Machines or artificially created life?, J. Philosophy 61(21):668–691, 1964. Return to text.
  3. Laing, R., cited by Freitas, R.A. Jr., The legal rights of robots, Student Lawyer 13:54-56, January 1985. Return to text.
  4. Millner, J., Should robots have human rights? Act now to regulate killer machines before they multiply and demand the right to vote, warns legal expert, MailOnline, 20 July 2015; dailymail.co.uk. Return to text.
  5. Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene, p. 5, 1989. Return to text.
  6. Cashmore, A., The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(10):4499-4504, 2010; pnas.org/content/107/10/4499.full.pdf html. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

manuel T.
For there to be any "Rights", there necessarily has to be a Moral Law that asserts that one ought not infringe on aforementioned "Rights". In other words, to infringe on a "Right" is wrong, and wrong in the sense that even if Man-Made Law says it is alright to infringe on it....it remains wrong to do so. For instance, Humans have the right to Freedom, so Slavery is Morally wrong even when man-made laws made slavery lawful.

Now, I have two questions to those that assert Robots ought have "rights": What moral Framework are you appealing to? And, Why ought the Moral Framework you appeal to be normative?

Wesley C.
I feel you all are right in that robots should never be seen as a an equal to a human being. But as my friend said, if robots get that smart and self conscious it will be like the film Terminator. I am only 13 but I can see that for myself and I know that we don't want that to happen.
Philip Bell
Wesley, thanks for commenting. No need to fear. Self-consciousness is something which could not arise within man-made machines. Only that which God the Creator makes can possibly be self-aware, conscious of its own existence. Only human beings, made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27), can appreciate beauty and worship their Maker. Only they are endowed with a moral sense (and understanding of right and wrong) and are culpable for how they behave. Machines will never take on a life of their own (except in science fiction movies).
Sherm R.
Robots should have the same rights as a frying pan or a hammer.
Colin W.
How can a created-by-man robot have any rights as [it is] only a programmed object, and subject to man's control?
Brian S.
As I am an 'artist/philosopher' (self-styled) and not a scientist, my view is somewhat different from that of most people.
I am not a Rationalist.
I think that the Christian church has contributed to the insanity of modern thinking by accepting Scientific Rationalism as true.
I have done an enormous amount of study and research into the history and philosophy of this, but now is not the time to discuss it.
The simplistic truth is that the image of God, in which we are made, is not our rational ability, per se, but our conceptual, creative imagination.
God is creator, we are made creative.
Despite some attempts to show otherwise, animals are not conceptually creative. However, they are rational.
To give only a cursory glance at mankind's phenomenal achievements would show just how different we are, if only we got away from the idea that the greatest thing about us is our intellect (Our powers of reason, logic, etc.).
Machines are not (and can never become) creative. In my understanding they are, and will remain, tools. As far as I can tell, AI is based on logic alone. Logic is the most suspect aspect of reasoning. I have met extremely logical thinkers who have developed ideas from totally wrong assumptions.
Having said all that, I have a problem with 'rights' anyway. There are no real 'human rights', only privileges bestowed by those in charge. Which, of course, is Biblical. The only 'rights' we should believe we have are death and hell. Without Jesus we are sunk.
Christians do not need to support Humanist 'human rights', (or animal rights or machine rights) we should be promoting the love that Jesus advocated, which is far bigger, far wider reaching, far more difficult than 'human rights'.
David T.
I think Robby the Robot, who was first featured in in 1956's "Forbidden Planet", should have rights. I mean, look at him. That boy has earned his stripes.

Just kidding. God bless you guys, and keep up the good work!


George M.
I am surprised you find robot rights any more absurd than animal rights. After pre-Flood vegetarianism, animals were made available to us for food, but cruelty and harsh treatment were discouraged. Animals experience pain, fear and distress. Sufficiently sophisticated artificial intelligences will experience these too, along with boredom in the face of repetitive tasks and stress at the threat of damage. I imagine the first people to actively encourage robot rights and protections will not be humanist academics, but compassionate Christians.
Philip Bell
Christians who seek consistently to base their opinions about rights upon the Bible will certainly make a difference between the way we treat animals (e.g. see here and here), plants or inanimate objects we ourselves have created. There is no evidence that anyone has created an artificial intelligence that can experience pain or boredom. If a machine 'declared' that it could experience such things, this would be because it had been programmed to do just that under certain circumstances.
Ray N.
You can blame all the hollywood movies and animations that portrays robots as having consciousness and feelings. Programmers are starting to code 'attitude' in toy robots, to make it seem more human.
As for intelligence, I do believe what is created can never be smarter than the person who created it. No human can be smarter than God, that's for sure, not even close.
Computer processes information much quicker than human brains, but how it solves a problem depends on how the programmer programmed how the problem should be solved.
I haven't put too much thought to neutral networks, though. It's a bit of black box. I guess materialists hope that somehow it could lead to robot consciousness.
Ryan D.
Great article. It kind of amazes me the way artificial intelligence(AI) is portrayed to the layman. A robot is executing a program and does not deviate from it. Its decisions are all predictable given knowledge of the current state of the program. It does not think, it does not feel, it does not have emotions, it does not even really know what it's doing. However, it's always portrayed as though we're one step away from an AI that's as or more intelligent than a human. In truth AI doesn't even compare to the lowliest of animals and we will need a revolution incomputer programming before we can even begin to develop the systems necessary for even an animal intelligence.

It is perfectly consistent with the view that we're all just machines though. However, I do question how many scientists actually believe that. Even without a belief in God or some sort of supernatural it's just not really possible to say a person, or even an animal, is nothing more than a machine.

For me as a computer programmer working for a video game company I feel I get some neat insight into the workings of creation. I have to write the code that makes a world work, but as the programmer I'm capable of inserting things that allow me to violate the rules of the world. In some small way it's similar to God's relationship with creation, though I would not compare myself to Him.
Z. Z.
The article may have missed the motivation for robot rights...we are primarily concerned with responsibilities. Who is responsible for robot misbehavior/accidents, etc? If the robot is responsible then by extension its creator is responsible, not its owner. Thus, this applies only to highly capable robots. For example, your car is driving itself down the road, incorrectly makes a decision and crashes, killing you. Are you responsible (you were the human in the car after all) or was the car itself responsible? If the car is responsible then the creator of the car would have liability for the crash. This is less about ethics and more about insurance.
Joe B.
It's becoming printed into people's brains these days that consciousness=ability to learn and only that. How do you argue with that? I usually
mention how we don't know exactly where consciousness resides and that it is quite likely that there is some immaterial 'essence', if you will, which is us. All that I see in the area of artificial intelligence is simply robots using math to solve things, like that robot that can create blog/articles for some websites.
I think this is similar to the whole Alien believing situation where it's based on the assumption that evolution is true and that there is nothing special to us/more to us.
Niclas O.
Well, what should we expect?

Materialists believe that we and our bodies are just 'bags of chemicals', without soul or spirit: the difference between us and a robot is that we are made of organic molecules (and will die of age), the robot are made of plastic and metals...
Jordan C.
They have definitely become futile in their thinking to consider that the human mind can be in any way equivocated to a bowl of sugar! In order for them to be consistent, I would presume that bowls of sugar should have “rights” along with circuit boards. A question for the materialist; Why give distinction to only what the human mind elects or affords to “robots”, and [how] is the human mind to make appropriate or accurate distinctions on the matter in the first place? They have reduced the mind to an illusion, and with their mind they intend to reason from it by making truth claims in order that we believe anything that they have to say! Did they “choose” to make the claim, or did their utterance just randomly occur, or did the chemicals tell them to do it? It is madness!!
If there is no such thing as free-will according to the materialist/determinist, what then are “rights” and where to do “consequences” come in? According to the materialist, we are just dancing to the chemicals in our brains, a matter of cause and effect, driven by necessity, so why should there be consequences when free will is deemed an illusion? Why should we believe the mixture of chemicals dancing around in their brains, over any other, or even that there is a such thing as chemicals to begin with? Besides, “robots” only respond with output signals to input signals that they are programmed with; a computer doesn’t “know” the difference between a rock and a ham sandwich! Seems like some people (materialists) don’t either! God bless CMI! :)
Anthony P.
... and they have no problem eliminating unborn babies in the womb. The unborn have no rights, but now, people want to give rights to robots that assemble your car. The absurdity of this logic baffles me, and greatly saddens me because these people have a public forum and a willing public that will agree with them who have watched "I Robot".....
Errol B.
In the context of Isaac Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics, to keep artificial ‘intelligence’ (robots) from harming or eliminating humans, Lawrence Krauss doesn’t value human existence any more than a sophisticated high tech computer. He basically said that near-future artificial ‘intelligence’ doing away with humans is not a bad thing. ...
This seems to be an attempt to bring technology up to the level of humanity. Far from elevating the value of information technology, they are actually degrading the value of humanity.
Regarding the free-will issue, prominent science media celebrity & physicist Michio Kaku presented a secular explanation of ‘Why Quantum Physics Ends the Free Will Debate’ in an episode of ‘big think’.
I’m just a layman, but even I could see a flaw in his argument, & you don’t need to understand Quantum Mechanics to see the flaw. He uses the ‘Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle’ to justify free-will in the materialist universe, but he equates randomness, or randomly selected ‘will’ with free-will, as if free-will is just a randomly selected mechanical phenomena. He assumes the spiritual realm has no relation to free-will. He defines free-will different to Christians.

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