Tuesday, January 02, 2007 New Scientist Blog

Android Rights

   The label “animal rights activist” is one we all understand. Perhaps in the future we will be just as familiar with “android rights activists.”

   Two recent and respectable predictions of tussles over robot rights suggest we might. Reports looking 50 years into the future commissioned by the UK government predicted that advanced, conscious robots would want rights like those we enjoy. With such rights responsibilities might also come, like voting, taxes and military service, the report said.

   It sounds reasonable, if distant. I think an academic paper in a special issue of the journal Connection Science makes a better point. David Calverley, a lawyer from Arizona State University suggests an analogy between robot and animal rights. It's an issue we'll have to deal with a lot sooner than whether robots should pay tax.

   At present, robots are regarded simply as property, he says, but as engineers strive to make them conscious that will change: "An analogy can be drawn with the animal rights movement suggesting that, with enough complexity, androids may lay claim to some moral status even though this may be less than what is required for legal personhood."

   The vigorous, even violent, controversy over animal rights arises from differing views on the moral status of animals. Some feel they may be harmed in the name of science or sport, while others do not. Robots roughly as sophisticated as, say, a cat could become the center of similar debates.

   I think Calverley has identified an important issue - and it's one he thinks could limit the progress of robotics. He says researchers need to think ahead to the kind of ethical problems that might surround robots far from human abilities, but within the range of those of animals.

   I wonder how soon that will be. In November (2006) researchers developed a robot that could sense injuries. How long before we have to make decisions about what can and can't be done to a robot rabbit?