April 2018

What does it mean when a robot is granted citizenship? What does it mean when humans aren’t created equal anymore? What happens legally or philosophically when the lines between human and machine are less and less distinct?

We may not live in that world just yet, but we will be living there soon. Last year, in what was widely derided as a publicity stunt, Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to an android. Critics were quick to note that Saudi citizenship did not grant the array of rights that citizenship in a liberal democracy might offer; they were quick also to note that the android, named Sophia and feminine in presentation, raised awkward questions about the legal status of human women in the kingdom.

We are not yet in the era of true, human-like AI. But we may be there soon, so discussion of these issues may be better had now than later. We have invited five experts in sociology, law, economics, and artificial intelligence to comment on the many issues surrounding the status of machines, and machine-augmented humans, in liberal societies. Professor Roland Benedikter of the Center for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research Bozen-Bolzano; Professor David D. Friedman of the Santa Clara University School of Law; AI researcher Rachel Lomasky; transhumanist journalist and advocate Zoltan Istvan; and robot law expert Professor Ryan Calo of the University of Washington.

We welcome comments from readers as well; comments will remain open through the end of the month.

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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.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.