Building Robots Without Ever Having to Say You’re Sorry

The European Parliament’s draft recommendations for governing the creation and use of robots and artificial intelligence includes rights for “smart” robots

3 min read

Photo of robot face
Photo: Getty Images

In January, the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament put forward a draft report urging the creation and adoption of EU-wide rules to corral the myriad issues arising from the widespread use of robots and AI—a development, it says, is “poised to unleash a new industrial revolution.”

It’s an interesting read, and a valiant effort to get a handle on how to standardize and regulate the ever-expanding robot universe: drones, industrial robots, care robots, medical robots, entertainment robots, robots in farming—you name it, they’re all in there.

Beginning with Frankenstein’s monster, Prague’s golem, and Karel Čapek’s robot and ending with a code of ethics for robotics engineers and some daunting lists of “shoulds” for robot designers and end users, the 22-page worry catalog toggles between practical concerns about liability, accountability, and safety—who’s going to pay when a robot or a self-driving car has an accident?—and far-ranging ones about when robots will need to be designated “electronic persons,” and how we will ensure that their creators make them good ones.

The practical concerns addressed include a call for the creation of a European agency for robotics and artificial intelligence to support the European Commission in its regulation- and legislation-making efforts. Definitions and classifications of robots and smart robots need to be detailed, and a robot registration system described. Interoperability and access to code and intellectual property rights are addressed. Even the impact of robotics on the workforce and the economy are flagged for oversight.

The “electronic persons” discussion, tucked halfway through the report, caught everyone’s attention—perhaps because it’s much more fun to catastrophize about HAL 9000 and Skynet than it is to ponder robot insurance requirements. And because personhood—what it legally means to be recognized as a person—is such a loaded topic.

Mady Delvaux, a Luxembourg member of the EP and the report’s author, attempted to clarify the designation of what a limited “electronic personality” would be, saying that it would be comparable to the standing that corporations have as legal persons, making it possible for them to conduct business, limit liability, and sue or be sued for damages.

But we haven’t finished addressing legal definitions of personhood for women, children, and higher-order animals like chimpanzees yet. Are we really ready to take on robot e-personhood?

I called Joanna Bryson, reader in the department of computer science at the University of Bath, in England, and a working member of the IEEE Ethically Aligned Design project, to ask her what she thought, having just read the Reddit Science “Ask Me Anything” she did about the future of AI and robotics. Her response? As soon as you put the word “person” in the draft, you’re probably in trouble.

She told me about Australian law professor S.M. Solaiman’s article “Legal Personality of Robots, Corporations, Idols and Chimpanzees: A Quest for Legitimacy,” which argues that corporations are legal persons but AIs and chimpanzees aren’t. Legal persons must know and be able to claim their rights: They must be able to assert themselves as members of a society, which is why nonhuman animals (and some incapacitated humans), and artifacts like AIs should not, according to Solaiman, be considered legal persons.

But then Bryson said something I had not considered. Since robots are owned—they are in a sense our machine slaves—we can choose not to build robots that would mind being owned. We aren’t obliged to build robots that we end up feeling obliged to, says Bryson. So instead of assuming that an ethically challenged future saturated with sentient machines is inevitable, we could choose to maintain agency over the machines we are building and defy the technological imperative. Could we do it? Or are we so in thrall to the notion of creating artificial life, monsters, and golems, that it’s irresistible?

This article appears in the March 2017 print issue as “Do We Have to Build Robots That Need Rights?”

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions