Lower VI and Ethics and Robots!

Posted: 1st July 2021

Rights for Robots?

Ms Corkery, Head of R.E. reports on , the activities of Lower VI in General R.E. and the achievement of our Head Girl, ‘In General RE this year, Lower VI girls have been busy discussing a variety of moral dilemmas in order to explore what influences their moral decision making. The girls have explored a variety of ethical theories, such as Natural Law, Divine Command Theory, Utilitarianism, Ethical Egoism and Humanism, and the application of these theories to real life contexts, such as the euthanasia, the Covid 19 vaccine roll out, and, indeed, robots!

Our Head Girl, Siya, entered an external essay competition hosted by the New College of the Humanities and produced a masterpiece of an essay for the Philosophy section discussing the topic: “Should robots have rights? Why or why not?” It is well worth reading Siya’s essay printed below, and a joy to experience the independence of thought that produced such a fantastic piece of writing. It is not surprising that Siya was selected as one of the finalists for the Philosophy section of the competition, and we have to wholeheartedly congratulate her!’

‘Should robots have rights? Why or why not?’

‘Think about a world where robots had rights. Where robots were the new generation of scientists, astronauts, teachers, dentists, carers etc. Imagine a life where you were surrounded by these machines which couldn’t think for themselves, did not have a mind of their own, couldn’t feel pain or any emotions at all and yet they still had the same rights as you. Would you feel comfortable? Is that right?

In simple terms, a robot is defined as ‘any machine which resembles a human being and is able to replicate numerous human movements as well as being capable to function automatically’, and a right is defined as ‘the moral and legal freedom to have or do something, which all human beings are entitled to have’. The question I’m going to be answering is whether robots should have rights. With further and more rapid advancements in technology, they will inevitably enter our lives, so their rights have to be considered. But whether these rights should be equal to the rights of humans is questionable.

Some people would argue that robots should have rights. They believe that as humans, we should take moral responsibility to protect them against harm. Therefore, they should have a right to be protected by the ethical and legal system and furthermore be programmed to be trustworthy. A Bill of Rights may have to be implemented which protects robots against cruelty from humans; this has already been put in place and conceived in America and is called ‘American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots’.

Moreover, people think robots should have rights as they are able to exceed human capabilities and capacities. This means that they are able to take on jobs or missions that humans will never be able to face or accomplish on their own. For example, robots can be programmed to survive in extreme weathers, atmospheres and environments which could be useful for the future, due to exceeding rates of climate change and natural disasters. Also, robots could be programmed to have the ability to travel to a whole new range of planets and solar systems which humans would never be able to do due to the limitation of age. This would lead to further research and possibly discoveries of new species and other theories. Furthermore, robots are able to detect diseases with a higher degree of accuracy and are capable of performing tasks such as surgery more efficiently than humans. For the future, this is especially important. If there were any further outbreaks of a new disease or any further global pandemics such as the current one with COVID, robots would be able to recognize and diagnose this at a faster rate which would help in preparation. Overall, robots and AI will benefit us in the future as they have the power to take on and perform more strenuous tasks, which could lead to a whole new level of progression in modern living and attitudes.

‘Rights’ are not exclusively for humans and they therefore should be considered distinct from ‘human rights’. So although people argue that robots should be given ‘rights’ they believe they will be similar to the ‘rights’ corporations and companies have. For example, in the USA, corporations are given the same rights and obligations as citizens. These include rights such as religious freedom and freedom of speech. This would make more sense since humans are working and ‘programming’ these corporations just as they are with robots and AI. However, if robots advance to the point where they are able to think independently and are not constantly reliant on humans, this is a whole new province and maybe then we could consider taking the next step in advancing their rights.

However, many people are against giving robots rights. Firstly, it’s essential and it’s our priority to resolve the issue of gender and racial inequality of humans before we even start considering the rights of robots. Imagine living in a world where robots have more rights than humans do? Since the 1800s and possibly even before, racial segregation has existed and it is still an unsolved issue today. People of different ethnicities still don’t have the same rights as others and yet we are considering giving man made machines rights?  A new global Ipsos poll conducted in 28 countries found that only four in ten (43%) global citizens agreed that everyone in their country enjoys the same basic human rights. Equally, women over 30 only got the right to vote in 1918 and this was only in the UK. Before this, men had the right to vote, men could take on many more proficient jobs than women could and overall men had the upper hand in society. The problem is that still, after so many years, humans are not treated as equals across the globe so how are we even starting to question giving robots rights? We have already seen conflict after allowing a robot to have rights. When the humanoid robot Sophia was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, there was a lot of backlash and outrage from the rest of the population living there. Many people were furious because Sophia had more rights than human women living in the same country. Obviously, we have to be concerned that the future existence of robots is inevitably going to happen, however a prominent issue at the current moment is disparities in human rights and inequality. Surely global equality should occur before we start allowing robots and AI to have rights?

Furthermore, it can be argued that robots are not sentient. They do not have a consciousness and therefore are incapable of feeling pain or having any self-awareness. They can be backed up, stored and duplicated and even if they do develop self-awareness and consciousness, should they be allowed rights? Humans on the other hand are living, sentient and unique beings with a finite lifespan. Our consciousness and ability to feel emotions is what makes us human. These qualities allow us to make our own decisions without the control of someone else. At the current moment, all the robots with AI are programmed by humans. Although people suggest we should programme them to be trustworthy, not everyone will follow these guidelines and hence, robots could start a whole new level of conflict or war in the world. Surely by allowing robots to have rights, we have to question whether other technology, such as mobile phones, televisions, toasters, ovens etc should have rights of their own too, given that they’re all machines which are programmed to do their duty.

In addition, as robots become more advanced and integrated into our society, jobs and daily activities people perform today could be taken over by them. This could lead to people becoming more intolerant and impatient and consequently humans may discriminate against these machines. A notable example of this is the introduction of smart speakers such as the ‘Amazon Alexa’. This artificially intelligent virtual assistant can be argued to be a major benefit in a human’s day to day life. They are advanced enough to respond to voice commands in order to answer all of our questions about the weather, the news etc and are able to stream music and radio stations within an instant. In 2018, it was discovered that over 9.5 million people in the UK owned a smart speaker, but despite the positives of having a virtual assistant that efficiently responds to commands given, many people, especially parents, are becoming more concerned and anxious about this. They believe these virtual assistants are having numerous interferences on children’s behaviours making them progressively impolite.

In conclusion, we have to be aware that giving robots rights will always have its positives and negatives. In my opinion, I don’t believe they deserve to have human rights, however giving them ‘rights’ like corporations should be contemplated. All things considered, they are still only machines, even if we make them look like humans they will always be different from us. It is impossible, at the present day anyway, for robots to be fully humanlike and this is because we are still unsure about how the human mind and consciousness works. Only when we  figure out the psychology in detail, then we will be able to start programming robots to have a consciousness and to be sentient. When and if they do develop a mind of their own, we would of course have to further examine if it is appropriate to extend their rights. Nevertheless, at the current moment, we have more prominent issues we have to face such as achieving human rights globally. According to statistics, countries such as Syria, North Korea and Tibet provide the least amount of freedom for humans. Also, there are other moral issues such as euthanasia and abortion that must be addressed and, finally, the rights of animals which surely has to be addressed before robots.’

Categories: Priory Post Sixth Form Whole School