Should Robots Have Rights?

By 2056, robots may be given the same rights as humans, a government-funded report claimed in 2006.

The report was conducted by the British Government’s chief scientist, Sir David King, and was written in conjunction with Outsights, a management consultancy group, and Ipos Mori, an opinion research organization.

If the report is correct, then in less than half a century from now, robots may even be able to vote, pay taxes and be called upon for compulsory military service.

An article in the Mail about the report quoted Henrik Christensen, director of the Centre of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who said: “If we make conscious robots they would want to have rights and they probably should.”

The report continues:

Robots and machines are now classed as inanimate objects without rights or duties but if artificial intelligence becomes ubiquitous, the report argues there may be calls for human rights to be extended to them.
It is also logical that such rights, are meted out with citizens’ duties, including voting, paying tax and compulsory military service.
Mr Christensen said: “Would it be acceptable to kick a robotic dog even though we shouldn’t kick a normal one? There will be people who can’t distinguish that so we need to have ethical rules to make sure we as humans interact with robots in an ethical manner.”

I am pleased to be able to say that there were some dissenting voices. Writing in the Daily Mail, A.N. Wilson asked, “If robots were given the vote, would they be tempted to vote for other robots to enter Parliament?” He continued:

The Government paper is no joke. They are seriously considering the possibility of the rights of machines…. How can it be that such an absolutely insane set of propositions could have escaped the pages of science fiction, and been given serious consideration by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser?…

As for robots or other machines, it is foolish to suppose that they can ‘think’ in the way that human beings think. They can no more think in the human sense than a clock knows how to tell the time.

The clock helps us to tell the time. Just as a robot or machine, however complicated or capable of developing apparently independent mental processes, will only ever be the sum of its mechanical parts.

That debate happened back in 2006. Thankfully, I have not heard that it has not been taken up since then. But it did raise an interesting question: if, theoretically, robots could be developed to the point where they had consciousness and could be programed with all the properties of humans, how could we justify not giving them rights? According to some of the “nothing but” approaches to describing human nature that Denyse O’Leary wrote about in Salvo 1, the answer is simple: even now there is not a whole lot of difference in principle being a human and a machine, or between a human and an animal. The difference is merely one of complexity. Indeed, what A.N. Wilson said about the machine, namely that it “will only ever be the sum of its mechanical parts”, is unfortunately what many people now think about humans.

Further Reading


Francis Schaeffer expert offers the facts on Michele Bachman, Francis Schaeffer, and “Dominionism.”

At Patheos (August 26, 2011), religion scholar Douglas Groothuis writes, in “Michele Bachmann and Dominionism Paranoia: Once again the popular media demonstrate how woefully poor is their understanding of American evangelicals”:

In the August 15 issue of The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza asserts that Bachmann has been ideologically shaped by "exotic" thinkers of the dominionist stripe who pose a threat to our secular political institutions. The piece—and much of the subsequent media reaction—is a calamity of confusion, conflation, and obfuscation.

We noticed. Say on.

Among other things, Rousas Rushdoony, the founder of the Reconstructionists (later called “Dominionists”) was not a theocrat. He aimed at convincing the public to replace current legal structure with Biblical law. Odd, yes. Violent, no. Groothuis estimates that Rushdoony fans are an “infinitesimal fraction” of Christian conservatives, which sounds about right to journalists who wrote for the Christian media in the 1990s, when the idea first surfaced.

More scandalously, Lizza claimed in his hit piece that apologist Francis Schaeffer, – a genuine influence on Bachman, along with philosopher Nancy Pearcey – argued for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe vs. Wade isn't reversed," in A Christian Manifesto (1981)." Actually, Schaeffer, like Rushdoony, never advocated violence.

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Religion and disease: Epidemics play role in changing religion?

In "Religion and Disease: Deadly epidemics can have a profound impact on people’s choice of religion" (The Scientist , August 25, 2011), Cristina Luiggi reports on a study of the role of religion in epidemics:

In an attempt to study this in a modern setting, Hughes and colleagues surveyed religious attitudes among the people of Malawi, where AIDS has become the leading cause of death among adults. They found that 30 percent of people who described themselves as Christians visited the sick, in contrast to 7 percent of Muslims They also found that in the last 5 years, about 400 of the 3000 respondents changed religions, mostly to Christianity, “where the promise of receiving care is greater and the stigma of having AIDS is less,” Hughes explained to ScienceNOW. The researchers presented their data at the 13th Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology earlier this week.

Of course, there's always the influence of Jesus's judgement on the saved:

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Mindfulness in medicine a problem? – PZ Myers thinks so

Some have begun to question the role of mindfulness in health maintenance, with even PZ Myers getting in on the act:

I've read some of these studies, and am unimpressed. Most of them assess subjective phenomena ("chronic pain" is notoriously amenable to suggestion, for instance), …

Yes, precisely, PZ. Thanks for making the point. Mindfulness can improve the effectiveness of pain relief without increases in harmful drugs, which may be in conflict with other medically necessary drugs. Here are some studies on the subject.

In “Mindful medical practice: just another fad?” (Canadian Family Physician, 2009 August), Tom A. Hutchinson and Patricia L. Dobkin tackled the problems, observing the following:

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Study: Spirituality pays a key role in fighting depression

In “Can Religion or Spirituality Help Ward Off Depression?” (World of Psychology August 25, 2011), a somewhat skeptical John M. Grohol reports,

The new longitudinal research out of Columbia University wanted to followup on previous research demonstrating this correlation between spirituality or religiosity and a reduced risk for depression.

The researchers continued to followup on a set of subjects they had used in the previous study, following them from the 10-year mark (when the older research had ended) to the 20-year mark. The subjects in the study were 114 adult offspring of both depressed parents and parents who had no depression.

At the 20-year mark, had there been an episode of major depression? Only one quarter of the people who said religion or spirituality was important had experienced major depression. Time spent at religious services didn’t affect this outcome.

The really interesting find was that

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