Why Robots (and Animals) Never Need Rights

A robot CITEC built before my talk.
This is broadly informed by the animal welfare vs animal rights literature. Of course the distinction between rights and welfare is "just" a matter of semantics, but given the much higher correlation between the term animal rights and terrorism, and animal welfare and science, I think we should keep with the language suggestions below. Sorry this is a very quick blogpost, this is from my lecture "Why AI Ethics Is a Feminist Issue: The Legal and Moral Lacuna of Machine Rights" November 22, 2017 at CITEC, Bielefeld.

Rights are a means humans have negotiated to give each other the protections we need to flourish. There is no reason to build artefacts that need that sort of elaborate protection, and selling such artefacts would be unethical so certainly that should be banned for commercial products.  Further, rights by their nature require resources of time and attention, so draining these resources from defending humans when so many humans still lack basic rights is abhorrent.

unique and vulnerable
not unique or not vulnerable
can know and execute law
  • Most humans
  • many corporations
  • intelligent law systems
  • shell companies 
cannot know or cannot execute law
  • non-cognizant humans
  • animals
  • badly designed AI
  • most artefacts
  • other stuff

There is of course another argument that all humans – and any animal that reminds us of humans – should be protected by rights just so we maintain the habit of applying rights to humans. In those cases I acknowledge that argument may have validity overwhelming mine above.  But this is not the case for robots, because again we can engineer robots not to remind us of humans.  Adding humanoid features to a robot is a design decision; using humanising language in or about AI systems is an editorial decision.  Those design and editorial decisions can and should be avoided.

See also
Thanks to Markus Kneer for forcing me to draw the table (on a napkin – the best academic development happens on napkins).  Admittedly this still needs tidying up – I haven't handled art or humans forbidden access to the law e.g. due to citizenship status very well.

Edit 29 September 2019 to clarify how corporations fit into this, and why shell companies are a problem – they are not unique, they're easy to proliferate and are used for corruption. If AI were allowed legal personhood, it would be the ultimate shell company.