Rights for Machines

Yesterday we had a post about an ethical movement to treat not just animals but now plants with “dignity” (with a strange indifference to treating human life with the same deference). Now I read about a movement to grant rights to machines. From Do Humanlike Machines Deserve Human Rights?, in “Wired”:

The perennial concern about the rise of robots has been how to keep them from, well, killing us. Isaac Asimov came down from the mountaintop with his Three Laws of Robotics (to summarize: Robots shouldn’t disobey or hurt humans or themselves). But what are the rules for the humans in this relationship? As technology develops animal-like sophistication, finding the thin metallic line between what’s safe to treat as an object and what’s not will be tricky. “It’s going to be a tougher and tougher argument to say that technology doesn’t deserve the same protection as animals,” says Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor who directs a program called the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab. “One could say life is special—whatever that means. And so, either we get tougher on technology abuse or it undermines laws about abuse of animals.”

It’s already being considered overseas. In 2007, a South Korean politician declared that his country would be the first to draw up legal guidelines on how to treat robots; the UK has also looked into the area (though nothing substantial has come of it anywhere). “As our products become more aware, there are things you probably shouldn’t do to them,” says John Sosoka, CTO of Ugobe, which makes the eerily lifelike robot dinosaur Pleo (also tortured on Web video). “The point isn’t whether it’s an issue for the creature. It’s what does it do to us.”

HT: First Things

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Eric M

    Star Trek NG dealt with the issues regularly when it focused on the android Data. The interesting part there is that Data understood he was a machine and therefore put himself in harm’s way to protect humans. In some ways this showed Data to be more “human” than the real humans.

    Now to the point about laws on how we treat robots. We generally admit that withholding food and water from a healthy human is bad (I’ll ignore cases of allowing the sick or infirmed to die for a moment). Does this mean that we will be unable to withhold electric power from a robot? What about fresh batteries? If the earth gets into severe energy crisis, will we be required to “feed” the robots with electricity while shutting down things that humans need?

  • Joe

    This is so stupid that I don’t even know what to say …

  • http://kirkles.tumblr.com Kirk

    I certainly hope there’s no sort of ethical code for machinery. Office Space would probably be banned.

  • Bruce Gee

    Joe, it may be stupid, but it is in some ways a part of the continuum that has Switzerland granting “human” rights to non-human living forms. If you are going to define life as anything that, philosophically or apparently, has “feelings”, then soon enough machines that appear to have feelings will be added to the list.

    Oh. I forgot to add: has “feelings” but also is not domineering. Any living being that has stewardship responsibilities is out of the equation.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    In a way, this article and the one from yesterday are cherry-picking the evidence from the loony bin, as it were. I mean, it’s interesting to consider, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is a popular movement. History is littered with wide-eyed Wired predictions left completely unfulfilled. This one’s good for a chuckle and for chucking in the ever-growing “news of the weird” section of the ever-less-accurately-called news Web site, but we’re only talking about these particular loonies because it fits into our worldview, right? There are plenty of other loonies out there whose ridiculous ideas we’ll never consider because, well, they’re ridiculous, unpopular, and not of interest to us.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Well, tODD, there seems to be a few too many loonies who actually take some of this stuff seriously, especially in the really bizarre (and even some not so out there) scientific advances which are getting generous funding to wed man and life with machine. Think of what we can do now – nanotechnology, biochip implants, circuitry to the mind and heart and nervous system to manage bodily functions and pain, limb replacement and enhancement.

    You might think this is loony stuff, but I personally know a friend who is partial machine – so many of his bones and joints have been replaced. Another acquaintance is hoping to preserve his “mental equipment” so that he can live on for a very long time through some other or future means. There are lots of people who want to take all this stuff much much further and they are very serious.

    So, while a bit loony – in our opinion – it is still of great interest to me. One can only imagine the ethical problems man will dream up and actually encounter later today or maybe tomorrow.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Bryan (@6), you still sound a little over-excited to me. Yes, science and technology have advanced — that’s reality. But is it reality that there is anything like a popular movement to consider the rights of machines? Consider me a skeptic. I’m far more worried about the flat-earthers’ “popular” movement at this point.

    As to this “partial machine” fellow, such designation may be good for a laugh-line (or Star Wars reference, as in Kenobi’s line that Vader is “more machine now than man”). But let’s not confuse that with reality. Is your friend actually “partial machine”, such that he’s less human than you? Of course not — he’s fully human, even with all that technology implanted or strapped on. Surely your friend wants you to think of him that way. Anyhow, in that light, your friend’s case isn’t that interesting or relevant to Veith’s article.

    As for the brain-freezer, I will remain skeptical of anything coming of it until proved otherwise. There exists yet no actual ethical issue besides that of people attempting to deny their own mortality and possibly having too much money for their own good.

  • Stephanie

    I think these conversations, even if they remain merely interesting academic questions, can be important. As technology changes, do people re-evaluate what life is, what makes us human, etc.? As Christians, we have a ready answer. One that defines us as human not because we have attained certain amount of intelligence or have certain skills like playing chess. I could see this conversation leading to a stronger defense of life. I could also be a wide-eyed optimist in this regard.

    (Having taken a class from Nass, I can say that he doesn’t come across as all that loony. We started by asking “How do humans react to machines?” Turns out – much like they react to other humans. People are polite to computers and view them as teammates with only the slightest encouragement.)

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Yes, tODD, Obi-Wan, does come across as a real jerk in that part of the movies. Perhaps just that lack of a moral compass is what led to the downfall of the Jedi. But then again, I’m not so sure we should be too quick to judge. :P

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    Michael Crichton has written about how the lines between engineering and biology are becoming blurred.

    But if the question is really “What it does to us?”, then I would wonder why moving parts were necessary. Couldn’t hanging someone in effigy or putting someone’s picture on a dart board do something internally to someone? Or how about just picturing someone being tortured? We passed this point long ago. State-meted therapeutic punishment is a bad idea. If it were a good one, we would have needed it before now. But it is not, and we won’t be needing it any time in the future.


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