Sunday, June 29, 2014

Legal Protections for Robots?

"Please don't kick me!"
This article contemplates Extending Legal Protection to Social Robots:

"Even for fully informed adults, the difference between alive and lifelike may be muddled enough in our subconscious to warrant adopting the same attitudes toward robotic companions that we carry towards our pets. A study of Sony AIBO online message boards reveals that people were dismayed to witness the story of an AIBO being tossed into a garbage can. Not long after the Pleo robot dinosaur became commercially available in 2007, videos of Pleo “torture” began to circulate online. The comments left by viewers are strikingly polarized – while some derive amusement from the videos, others appear considerably upset, going so far as to verbally attack the originators and accuse them of horrible cruelty.

The Kantian philosophical argument for animal rights is that our actions towards non-humans reflect our morality — if we treat animals in inhumane ways, we become inhumane persons. This logically extends to the treatment of robotic companions. Given that many people already feel strongly about state-of-the-art social robot “abuse”, it may soon become more widely perceived as out of line with our social values to treat robotic companions in a way that we would not treat our pets."

This thinking appears to undermine individual rights to private property. Whether something is "property", or an independent being capable of suffering is an objective facet of reality that is independent of the subjective 'social sentiments' of those around it - e.g. if a robot is sentient and intelligent then no amount of convention can make it "my property" and legal protections should apply; conversely, if my Tamagotchi or Roomba are not sentient, then no amount of social convention or social notion of "inhumane treatment" can rightly make it illegal for me to vandalize them: Making it illegal for me to vandalize (my own) Tamagotchi would be tantamount to initiation of force against me for a victimless crime. These realities exist as objective facts - e.g. whether a Tamagotchi or R2D2 are sentient and/or can perceive pain - what really remains is for us to figure out how to determine the nature of the reality - e.g. the question is how could we know if a machine is 'sentient' enough (or capable of suffering) in some meaningful sense that it should have either full or limited 'rights' (e.g. protection from abuse, as we'd grant an animal, even if not intelligent). Not whether enough people around us are so incapable of overriding their base human instinct of anthropomorphization that they believe we should give in to popular demands to use force against innocent people for victimless crimes that irrationally upset them. This kind of thinking has led to many other unethical interventions in society, e.g. 'vice crimes'.

printf("Ouch! Stop! Please stop!");
The concept of abuse of animals doesn't inherently "logically extend" to robots because the reason animal abuse is illegal is because animals can suffer - if some particular robotic device cannot suffer then it would be an illogical "extension" - by definition, there is nothing "inhumane" about vandalizing non-sentient property*, because the definition of "inhumane" has to do with whether or not suffering occurs. Worse, laws against vandalizing your own Tamagotchi or Roomba or Aibo would actually harm someone - i.e. the person punished for a victimless crime. Thus if we are to claim "humanity", we cannot deliberately harm someone for a victimless crime - by definition that would be inhumane. So this very argument is self-contradictory. Does it seem ethical or "humane" to arrest someone and put them in prison for vandalizing (their own) piece of property that is incapable of suffering? No.

Of course if some particular robotic device is capable of suffering, then yes, protections must apply. Based on our current knowledge of physics, it's very unlikely that any existing robot matches this criterion.

(*Irrationally believing it to be inhumane doesn't make it inhumane, and much of how the modern legal system was conceptualized was precisely to protect against such emotionally-driven justifications for harming innocent people.)

(Edit: The article author, Kate Darling, gave the following brief response via Twitter: "Thanks! I discuss property in the paper this article is based on. The "crime" should only ever be one if harm to society outweighs." ... I think the notion of "outweighs" is misguided.)

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