Robot Rights

by John K. Adams

Popular Culture and Social Media

Robots have been in the popular culture as long as I can remember. Between movies and TV, robots populated our collective imagination as vaguely humanoid and mainly cute. Think mechanical puppies without the clean-up. Then, delving into sci-fi short stories, robots have a darker side.

Lately, they are more prominent in the news than in our popular entertainment. It seems robots are no longer a fanciful fiction but are the source of gloomy headlines and dire predictions. What gives?

With the intent of avoiding boring technicalities, I will speak of robots and their algorithmic operating systems as equivalent. If I mis-speak, please bear with me. This is not a how-to manual.

The biggest news of late is that the humongous social media companies (known popularly (and not ironically) as Masters of the Universe), are tweaking their news feeds to favor one political party or the other in an effort to sway elections. The algorithms are said to be politically agnostic but evidence suggests otherwise.

Bias in Artificial Intelligence

Everyone knows a false premise leads to an aberrant outcome regardless how flawless the internal logic is. If bias is part of the structure, bias will be in the outcome. (see related news about robots being racist (those pesky programmers again!))

If nothing is done to stop it, Artificial Intelligence is predicted to be the death knell of the human race.

Robot Rights vs. Human Rights

Before too long someone will promote that robots deserve all the rights of any human, including the right to vote. (I am not suggesting this.) The robot named Sophia was granted citizenship by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Presumably this gives Sophia more rights than the women of that country.

This is scary stuff.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to wade through the legalities of private companies attempting to influence elections. They always have, but not on this scale. However, the questions are intriguing.

Robots cannot yet vote, but they may be guiding us to whom we should vote for. Would they be acting on their own behalf? If they ever gain the rights of citizenship, they will become a huge voting bloc. Will you vote for a robot running for Congress? Will it look out for your interests over the interests of its fellow robots? Will you even know he/she is a robot?

Rights accompany responsibilities. How do we engage robots into adopting our timeless values?

Life? They aren’t alive.

Liberty? They are programmed to do what they do.

Pursuit of Happiness? They do not feel emotion. Happiness (and any emotion) is meaningless to them.

Will robots pay taxes? Or will their owners? Will ownership of a being with rights of citizenship even be legal?

What part do the programmers play in all these questions? If robots are to act ethically, the programmers must also.

How Robots Think, Or Do They?

Complicated algorithms are the driving intelligence behind robot behavior. They are effectively the operating system. Real world experience allows them to learn, modify and adapt the logarithms for future action.

Want someone to explain the binary world view to you? Ask a robot. Their world is made of yes/no, on/off, one/zero. Not very nuanced. Compared to the complex of emotions most humans feel and which motivate them, binary is not very subtle.

Robots are all logic and no feeling. Mechanical, methodical and masculine. You see fantasy pictures of ‘female’ robots. They have graceful lines, but they are not feminine. You wind them up and they do their programmed task. There is nothing relational, nor vulnerable. They are all active energy, hard edged and practical. A life sized, glistening sex toy. Their breasts are little metallic shields. They are not in the least soft or maternal. Why would they be?

Asimov’s Laws for Robot Behavior, and Beyond

In the 1950s, author Isaac Asimov created four laws for robot behavior.  These laws informed many of his and other’s stories.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
  4. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Many call these laws as simplistic and mere outdated tropes to drive sci-fi stories forward. Asimov used them to illustrate the complexity of establishing rules of civility between humans and intelligent machines. The ramifications of these interactions varied from absurd to nightmarish.

We have reached a time when these rules are not just theoretical or hypothetical but must be addressed, adopted or improved upon. The Asilomar AI Principles are a start. The age of robots is upon us.

One fear is they will steal our jobs from us. And not just in the maintenance and manufacturing sectors. As jobs for humans disappear, the push for a universal maintenance income from the government will gain traction. Who will pay for this?

USC is exploring the use of robotic therapists. How does one reduce compassion to a logarithm? The amorphous godlike confessor in the George Lucas movie ‘THX 1138’ comes to mind.

Feelings, Compassion and Calculated Manipulation

The determining factor in deciding the humanity of a suspected replicant in Phillip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ is the degree of observable compassion for other living things.

Psychology is an inexact science, at best. Getting people to agree on how emotions drive behavior is difficult. Humans who are sociopaths can mimic socially expected emotional reactions to stimuli, but they do not actually experience emotion. Socio-pathology is largely thought to be untreatable.

How does it feel to be the output of an algorithm? Reducing fluid and amorphous emotional experience to mathematical equations seems unlikely.

I recently read about a study in which people struggled to turn off a robot when it pleaded for mercy.

Will robots afford us the same grace?

Killer Robots?

We don’t need to concern ourselves with robots going around killing people, Terminator style. Not yet. But self-driving cars are something to steer clear of.

Driving through Hollywood recently, I saw a small group of robots holding signs reading “Kill Whitey.” In these times of universal tolerance, how irresponsible to program robots this way.

It is one thing to program something in order to generate an emotion. It is altogether different to program the emotion itself. Our pornography infused society appears to think the physical is the sum total of human interaction. Curiously, science puts a lie to that myth.

I did not have Sex with that Robot

Nonetheless, surrogate sex-bots have been developed. Sex-bot brothels have waiting lists. Some expect it will be the end of civilization.

I remember the commercial for a computer school from the ‘70s – “I like to work with my hands, but don’t like getting my fingernails dirty.” Who knew?

‘Trading up’ takes on a whole new connotation when spouses must compete with mechanical sex-bots for attention. What hope can we hold for humanity if our solution to loneliness is resorting to mechanical silicone over developing a genuine relationship? As stated by Kevin Williamson, “we have only dreamt up new ways to be alone.”

Perhaps that fact will finally motivate men to actually talk to women (real ones).

I watched a much hyped interview with an actual ‘female’ robot (Sophia). It would take quite the craftsman to create a silicone face able to launch even an inflatable dinghy, let alone a thousand ships.

Laughter in the Age of Artificial Consciousness

A robot’s perception of reality is obscured by the fact it isn’t conscious. This is a big deficit when competing with sentient beings.

But I’m told robots learn. They can actively modify their operating algorithms and will soon surpass us in strength, intelligence and everything.

But will they laugh?

Can a sense of irony be learned? Sex bots are one thing, but will there ever be a bot equivalent to Buster Keaton or Lucille Ball? Obviously, sex is hugely important. But sex without emotion is as mechanical as a sewing machine. Ooooh, sexy!

Laughter is a very sexy response which goes much deeper than mere physicality. There is a shared understanding. Without laughter, is a relationship possible?

Free Will and Submission to Superior Intellect

Will our need and instinct for relationship be our saving grace?

Many writers speculate about humans falling in love with robots. But what do humans have to entice an emotionally impervious robot?

Humans anthropomorphize animals, teddy bears and also robots. There is nothing to suggest robots would reciprocate these sentiments.

Humans tend to dismiss things they don’t understand. If robots cannot feel emotions, why would they give a damn about them?

Will we be jealous when our creations don’t choose to love us?

One cannot be friends with something which has no choice in the matter. Can love and trust be programmed? And still call it love?

Humans are wonderful mimics. We are geniuses at adapting to foreign fashion and culture. But do we really want to tread the path of becoming more like our machines?

Or will human culture develop an emotional language to survive against intellectually superior but emotionally void robots?

‘Improvement’ at Whose Expense?

Evolutionists deny an absolute standard toward which we evolve. Survival is the proof of fitness. They speak of ‘improvement’ and progress as ends in themselves.

But improvement toward what? How can one aim at a target which doesn’t exist?

Without an objective standard, ‘improvement’ becomes meaningless. Becoming the ‘best’ monster is a dubious goal.

For now, the standard appears to be “better than human.” Smarter, faster, more efficient. These are all qualities to strive toward at times, like in road racing. But in a relationship? In humanity?

Does anyone remember the brief popularity of ‘speed dating’? Those were the days.

What a magnificent achievement these machines will be. But should our creations not, at the very least, enhance the human condition? Rather than making it obsolete? Should they replace humanity, or serve it?

As with humans, the seven wonders, all the great creative works, human achievements and monuments eventually turned to dust.  Will we actually submit to being replaced by an invention, superseding us in every way except its inevitable failure? Will robots have their own robots to do maintenance work for them? Or will we be reduced to serving our servants? Topping up the lubricant of the Tin Man?

Faster, cheaper, better… Eventually, the brave new world begins to resemble the bum’s rush.

Soon, the concept of robot ownership will pass out of favor. Robots will be assigned. Who will serve whom in that equation?

As robots improve, the distinction between robot and human will blur. The Turing Test determines how advanced a robot is by how difficult it is to discern its humanity or lack thereof. Eventually, Robots will design their own tests to expose humans trying to pass as one of them.

One telling distinction will be, they will not spend their time staring at smart phones. They will be staring at us.

Regardless, it might be handy to remember the phrase from “The Day the World Stood Still”: Klaatu barada nikto (rough translation: Chill out).


One thought on “Robot Rights

  1. Robot therapists? As a therapist, I resemble that remark! Can you imagine being in some kind of psychic of emotional pain and staring into the cold, steely eyes of an automaton, who punches out the words “How does that make you feel”? Well, how DOES that make you feel? It’s hard enough to cultivate empathy in some humans! Check, please!


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