Human rights are a thing – sort of. Addendum to my tirade against robot rights.

I really would prefer to have conversations about my blogposts in the comments of my blogposts, so people reading the posts in the future could find the discussions rather than having to rehearse them. But as usual most conversation about Rights are a devastatingly bad way to protect robots has occurred on other social media channels. This time I'm refusing to engage with it there though.

One misconception I've seen there though is that perhaps I don't "believe in" human rights.  I'd say that I do.  Human rights are a key set of concepts we use for organising our treaties, sanctions, laws, communities, thoughts, and lives.  That is, they are a part of our ethics.  Nothing is more real or important than that.

Rights are concepts, but concepts change the world

But human rights are concepts, not physical substantial things like human hair that we can compare chemically to the hair of other species. Concepts can be improved, or undermined and destroyed.  The reason I get incensed about the overextension of the concept of rights to artefacts we could better defend through engineering is that I worry about the damage done to these concepts' capacity to protect humans.  The reason other people think I'm a horrible person for defending humanity this way is because they think what they most want to defend about themselves is something they share with robots.  I believe these people are probably wrong, and further that they have not experienced the annihilation of rights more essential than those protecting properties that can be held by artefacts.  (Apparently some political scientists with more direct knowledge and experience of human rights violations are absolutely incredulous about the conversations on my Facebook pages.)

I get why this is confusing.  If you are American, you were probably raised believing that Rights are Truths self-evident; that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Particularly if you are a white male American, you would have reason to believe this is incontrovertible and inviolate. But as I argue in a lot of my talks, these apparently obvious and benevolent goals have lead us to a sustainability crisis that is killing people and wiping out species. Humanity since we originated writing / AI is the superintelligence you've been looking for.

There is no universally accepted set of human rights. In fact, to many world citizens the concept of rights is an insult seen as an excuse to deny access to technology or other sources of OECD states' power. Why do we need privacy, what rights do we have? Give us Facebook!

In fact, once recently when I was on a closed Chatham Rules advisory panel that was trying to decide how to protect people from autonomous weapons, I got depressed and asked what was the point of a ban. And one of the lawyers who works in one of the agencies that really does defend people told me "Of course people violate bans.  But once you've had people sign that they know what the right thing to do is, it makes it much easier and faster to organise penalties against those who've violated agreements. Agreements [like bans and rights] really do help us make the world better."  I should have known that, that's exactly how I think words work.
The EU charter of fundamental rights contains both positive and
negative rights. Has anyone tried writing it with a quill pen?

What kinds of things can be rights is still controversial

One of the most basic controversies in human rights is whether there can be positive as well as negative rights. Negative rights are like those in the US Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our constitution. They are about things that the government cannot do to you, like torture you or deny you peaceable assembly.  Most people at least in Europe and North America believe these are coherent and something worth fighting for.  However, some people also posit positive rights, things that a government is obliged to do for you, such as provide adequate food, employment, or health care.  These are more controversial because it's easy to see ways they could be made untenable (like promising everyone unlimited access to healthcare to make them live 200 years).  Nothing stops a state from not torturing you, but lack of resources might stop a state from not feeding you.

You need to understand that rights are concepts. They can be both critically important and yet fragile; they can be created, destroyed, undermined, and corrupted beyond use. They are not physical attributes that can be discovered and measured in an artefact.  Humans are some of the most plastic things in nature, that is, we can and do change ourselves all the time by thinking and learning. But we still have physical, biological limits far beyond the limits we have in what artefacts we create. AI is way more plastic than humans, which is why we should build our concepts of rights to defend humans, and build all of our artefacts in ways that defend those rights.

Whole brain uploading violates one proposed set of human rights

By the way, one thing I learned from writing this blogpost is that cloning humans is against the EU charter of fundamental rights. So I would guess it follows that whole-brain uploading / "AI Heaven" is a violation of human rights.  Clones should not be owned, or made.