Should robots have rights?


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.

Published: 5 December 2017

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.

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