A Gradual Way Forward

I agree with Rachel that the future of “serious” AI to be branded as such in the strict sense is still (far) ahead, as I have already stated in my lead essay. And I appreciate Rachel’s notion of “general intelligence” to be applied on the upcoming debates on rights for non-human “intelligence” within modern democracies. I regard this notion to be a potential “added value” to a more in-depth debate which hasn’t been taken into consideration sufficiently yet, at least in current Europe. Yet concrete legal proposal options on the “rights for robots” such as those brought forward by the European Union Committee on Legal Affairs and other EU bodies cannot be ignored by the alliance of global democracies, including the United States. Yet it remains to be seen whether they anticipate, or—perhaps unwillingly—co-generate a future that is to be rejected.

In detail, regarding the “robot rights” as proposed by a Working Commission of the Committee on Legal Affairs to the European Union on January 27, 2017—or more precisely the “Civil Law Rules on Robotics” proposed as a motion for a European Parliament resolution—there are a few precisions to add to my lead essay. Over the past few years, EU representatives have modified and differentiated their position several times. The resolution of the European Parliament on the option of introducing the “electronic personality,” or e-personality, for the most advanced robots has been developed from—and centered on—liability considerations. MEP Mady Delvaux, the leader and presenter of the resolution, has often stated that she is mainly concerned with issues of accountability, that is, with the question of who is responsible for the actions of “intelligent” robots, and that she sees this not as an immediate challenge, but rather as a question for the coming decades when “real” Artificial Intelligence will exist. According to Delvaux, this is an issue to be thought through by keeping it constantly present in the public and political debate and by accompanying the developments in this field. It is not a decision to be taken now with potentially irreversible consequences. In this sense, in her view the resolution is a precedent to set the tone of the debate rather than a concrete juridical step for which it may still be too early.

Nevertheless, the resolution proposes an “e-personality” to be bestowed on advanced robots as a pilot project and as a model experiment. In interviews Delvaux often underscored her goal is to secure technological development that is in line with the idea of “technology for accountability” and thus is much more about liability issues than about rights and duties for robots in the strict sense, although both dimensions will be difficult to divide in the coming years. And this is really the crux in it. Speaking with former MEP Eva Lichtenberger and Mady’s assistant Morgane Legrand, it was pointed out by both that the idea of the “e-personality” comes from Italian Professor Andrea Bertolini (SSSa RoboLaw team) of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna Pisa and the French lawyer Alain Bensoussan. According to their idea, the e-personality is meant to cover liability questions just as an enterprise has to do. In her report Delvaux stresses that the option of e-personality shall be further investigated in depth by an extended juridical and empirical study by the European Union over the coming years, accompanying the development of AI and its confluence with advanced robotics. This could coincide with recent studies by the Centre for Advanced Studies of the European Commission, the factual government of the EU, among them the HUMAINT project—a study of human behavior and machine intelligence led by Emilia Gómez—and the project on digital transformation and the governance of human societies led by Henk Scholten and Michael Blakemore.

On the other hand, the idea of introducing the “electronic personality” in exchange for unconditional basic income for humans is one interpretation among many of how it could be applied. This interpretation is an echo of the “machine tax” proposed in various forms since the 1970s mainly by European Social Democratic parties to safeguard workers’ rights against advanced machines and automatization. The European “machine tax” idea is not far from Bill Gates’ proposal of taxation for machines that take away human jobs, which I mentioned in my lead essay. South Korea was the first country to introduce such a “robot tax” in August 2017, fearing the replacement of larger and larger parts of its labor force by automatization. The issue of rights for robots was argued in this sense by most European politicians too.

In essence, the European Parliament seems to be aware that the main issues still lie ahead, and thus definitive juridical legislation cannot be on the table yet as all respective positions are still in development. It has to be expected that the debate will get more heated as the first binding legislative proposals will arrive. And a further division between the more liberal Western European states and the more conservative Eastern ones over the issue cannot be excluded.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • On October 25, 2017, the China-built U.S.-engineered “female” robot “Sophia” became an official citizen of the U.N. member state Saudi Arabia; a state which does not practice fundamental human rights, personal freedom, or gender equality. This set a historic precedent for the global community regarding how to classify intelligent robots and machines whose effects will fully surface only over the coming years. In face of the blurring boundaries between man and machine at the will of illiberal and authoritarian regimes, the alliance of global open societies must reiterate its fundamentals: human and personal rights, and a liberal order based on humanistic definitions, including the differentiation between humans and machines.

Response Essays

  • Rachel Lomasky points out the severe technical limitations of today’s otherwise impressive AI. Bots are adept at specialized tasks, but they are incapable of adapting their knowledge to new circumstances beyond the tasks for which they are designed. In this respect, even human children far surpass them. If general intelligence is a requirement for citizenship, then we are a long way away from a robot republic.

  • Zoltan Istvan describes a complicated future when humans aren’t the only sapients around anymore. Citizenship for “Sophia” was a publicity stunt, but it won’t always be so. Istvan insists that if technology continues on the path it has traveled, then there is only one viable option ahead for humanity: We must merge with our creations and “go full cyborg.” If we do not, then machines may easily replace us.

  • David D. Friedman says human-like robots are a distraction. If general AI arrives, we’ll have much more pressing problems to worry about, probably starting with the ability to copy. What happens when the first sentient AI copies itself ten thousand times? What if they vote? What if they own property, and if they argue about what to do with it? What if the original later deletes the copies? Friedman offers few answers, but does show the utter strangeness of the world that we may face one day.

  • Ryan Calo argues that the West has no need of a serious conversation about AI rights. Current implementations of artificial intelligence are nothing like humans, and the questions that a genuine AI might pose are at least a century away, and perhaps much longer. Rather, we should ask about the decisions that algorithms are making today, and how these choices may erode our existing human rights.