Any good sci-fi nerd will recall Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
As we move into a time in which the existence of robots transcends the pages of fiction, there are a few problems with these laws. First is the issue of the AI control problem — basically, the capacity of humanity to maintain authority over superintelligent machines, if indeed such a thing is possible. Second and more interestingly is the idea that a humanoid robot should exist in a realm separate from humanity. That is: to what extent should a robot have rights and be considered a person?
At the 2017 Future Investment Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a robot named Sophia, designed to look like a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Egyptian Queen Nefertete, was granted Saudi citizenship and thus became the first of her kind to assume a nationality. But what does being a robot citizen entail?
Without getting too much into the weeds about what makes a citizen, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that “all peoples” are “entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind.” These rights and freedoms include the right to equal pay for equal work, to own property, to travel, and to be seen as a legal person under international law.
Clearly, to enjoy rights and privileges without distinction is difficult in Sophia’s case. Critics have described her as “a chatbot with a face” which, while harsh — sorry, Sophia! — speaks volumes about her true autonomy. Though Sophia theoretically has the right to participate in her community, she is bound by the will of the lab that developed her and, to a significant extent, everyone with whom she interacts.
Sophia made an appearance at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where attendees were free to ask her questions about everything from religion to her music preferences. When asked whether she was free or a servant, Sophia responded, “This is all new territory. We are collaborating, learning and constantly working to advance the science.”
The attendee replied with a follow-up question: “Did someone tell you to say that?” Sophia had no response.
There is also the question of who owns intellectual property produced by artificial intelligence in the form of electronic persons who are afforded rights under the UDHR. Technically, these legal people should be compensated and retain ownership of their inventions, algorithms, and ideas; however, this raises interesting questions. For example, can and should artificial intelligence be held liable for patent infringement, including that created by other AI?
Sophia is right: This is new territory, and her Saudi citizenship is an experiment. She will be the pioneer who may or may not set precedents not just for how electronic persons exercise the human rights afforded by citizenship but also how they will shoulder the responsibilities.
Aleshia Howell is a Savannah-based technology entrepreneur. She writes about tech issues.