Monday, October 22, 2012

Paper on Legal Rights for Robots


Darling, Kate, Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots (April 23, 2012). We Robot Conference, University of Miami, April 2012. Available at SSRN: or

This is a really interesting paper that explores the rationale and implications of granting rights to social robots.

It opens a whole can of scenarios that legislators will need to wrestle with.  Some of the obvious edge cases that spring to mind are:

* How might these rights apply to the manufacture, repair and disposal of the robots?

- Manufacturer's need to "test" robots, which may involve testing them to destruction, or testing them in non-legal ways to ensure saftey for the user.

- Repair technicians need to disassemble and replace components and may place the robot in a state that is "illegal". They may also return a robot to the owner in a "functional" state but a state of "change" which the owner finds disturbing.

- How do you dispose of a robot if it has rights?  Can you put it out for the trash?  Can you bury it?  How do you dispose of a robot that is damaged or completely non-functional?

* One scenario that was mentioned in the paper as being a potential area for legislation is the domain of sexual behaviour with robots.  In the case where the behaviour crosses the boundaries of currently socially acceptable behaviour, should this also apply to robots?

The complication here is that a robot can be created specicially for the purpose of either the practice or theraputic behaviour modification therapy around these practices.  As the robot becomes a "tool" in this scenario and may be programmed in ways that the practice does not engender "pain" but instead activly "enjoy" the behaviour.  Or engage in a way that theraputically modifies the behaviour in the human participant.

In this kind of scenario, the legal protection of the robot may complicate therapies that are designed to benefit society.

* Scenarios where robots could or are Injured or destroyed through use are complicated.  It's quite reasonable to conceive of robots being inadvertantly injured during "work" such as dropped or broken through rough play.  In these cases, would there be a requirement for "repair" or trauma councelling for the affected humans?

* What about indirect attacks on humans by people attacking their social robots?  Similar to cases of companion animals being attacked by other animals or humans to inflict emotional harm to the owner.

Things to think about. 

The obvious extension of this is about purely software artifacts.  Social Software Agents.  Would they also be granted similar rights?  Especially where they embody some unique content or learning that has gone on to shape their behaviour with that of their human user/owner and have a strong bond.  Do they have some right of protection, existance, power?

The future will be interesting.

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