Should robots have the same rights as your child?

Did you know that a third (35%) of UK workers are excited about the prospect of their own personal AI assistant? Having an AI assistant could increase human work productivity and give workers back 12 working days a year by taking on admin tasks, Henley’s research suggests. As we can probably all agree – these changes are really exciting, but how exactly will this work in practice?

2018 has been a year of changes and predictions; Dr David Hanson – the creator of the world-famous Sofia robot – has predicted that robots will be given the same rights as humans by 2046, including the right to vote, get married, pay taxes and perhaps serving in the military. And it’s not just researchers and robotics specialists that are considering these issues, it’s a topic that has been widely discussed by the UK Department for Trade and Industry and the UK Office of Science and Innovation (UK). The UKSI support the notion that robots may be able to receive rights within the next 20 years, especially if robots develop to the point whereby they can reproduce or improve themselves. In addition, human society will be required to provide a duty of care to their robot citizens.

We could make the comparison of the Robot Rights movement with the Animal Rights movement. Organisations such as the Nonhuman Rights Project have been campaigning for the reassessment of legal statuses of some animals, namely great apes to be treated as autonomous persons as opposed to objects. In addition, of course – humans also must adhere to animal welfare law – in the UK, cruelty to animals is a criminal offence where one may be jailed for up to 6 months.

I’ve previously discussed the outrage at the treatment of the Boston Dynamics robot Atlas, who went viral as a victim of “human bullying” after engineers were trying to demonstrate the robot’s balancing and resilience abilities. Now think back to the beginning of 2018, which saw Boston Dynamics release a video of Spot – a doglike robot – being kicked by humans to similarly demonstrate balance. Viewers felt this was akin to animal cruelty, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a statement that described the video of the treatment as “inappropriate”.

Where is that line between human and digital? Do these robots have “feelings” if they are programmed to simulate sentience? Are they more sentient if they look like a human or animal?

Such studies have been done on the perception of robot consciousness. MIT observed how adults react to a robot dinosaur named Pleo, which is programmed to act and speak as if it is alive – and become “anxious” and “upset” when being held upside down or hit. The study showed that the participants automatically put Pleo back the right way up as soon as it appeared to “suffer” – subconsciously treating the robot like a living thing. All participants refused to destroy the robot.

Is this human nature or nurture though? Radiolab podcast by WNYC Studios (fab podcast, give it a try!) wanted to test out this theory. They invited five children to participate in a small study to test their reactions to a Barbie, a Furby (90s animated robotic animal) and a hamster. Each child was told to hold the items upside down for as long as they could. When turned upside down, the Furby would start to cry and asked to be put back. The test showed that they saw Barbie as non-sentient and held it for over 5 mins, but they felt unable to hold the hamster OR the Furby upside down for more than 10 seconds.

So is it so wrong to start thinking about giving robots rights?

Sofia, the famous humanoid robot, was the first robot in the world to be provided with citizenship of a country. She is now a “proud” citizen of Saudi Arabia and recently declared that she wants to use her position to fight for women’s rights in the Gulf. The problem is, many argue, that Sofia the robot currently has more rights than 50% of the Saudi population. And if we start giving robots equal rights within the workplace – what about those under-valued and represented groups that currently fall behind? I’m talking gender, race, sexual orientation, class, disability (and so on) equality. How can we even start to give equal rights to robots, when humans aren’t equal themselves?

I think this is a great starting point for discussion at our next World of Work conference in September where we will be discussing “Design for the Future” – where will we be in 30 years time? Is organisational design integral to the future workplace? Will robots need HR?

Let’s keep the debate open and see where it might lead…


This article was written by Maddy Woodman, Careers Learning Manager for Henley Business School. It is part of a wider discussion of the future world of work.

Find out more about the latest World of Work conference and join in with the conversation!


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