Et tu, AI?

On the many meanderings you undertake on YouTube and social media, you find gold once in a while. Like a gold digger, you are only further goaded by excitement to continue searching. One such golden nugget was this gem of a video on Robot Rights and whether it holds weight. I must confess, it got me scrounging the Internet a little more greedily.

Do robots deserve rights? What if machines become conscious?Creator:Kutzgesagt-in a nutshell

Against the global uproar for equality and rights, skeletally this is a discourse around unjust and prejudiced hegemony. (One could argue that it’s not really necessary for me to add those adjectives for hegemony) We are talking about systemic disadvantages perpetrated by an unfair power balance.

Historically, we reduce anything we want to oppress into an animal. Another word you could look out for is ‘inhuman.’

In today’s times, one would argue that even animals should have rights and that humanity isn’t all that valid as a barometer. Basically, we’ve never had a problem of vilifying ‘the other’ and we sure as hell don’t think about their rights unless ‘the other’ is oppressed to the point of absolute destitution or glaring social divide.

And if there is one thing that Hollywood Artificial Intelligence (AI) movies perpetrate, then it is a fear of AI taking over the Earth- a planet which we have self ordained ourselves to rule. The average AI movie instills such a sense of fear and self-preservation that we readily question the naive stupidity of humans to empower machines with autonomy and power. But it’s not so stupid considering how we define technological advancement as working towards a state of supreme mechanization-where technology can do human work. So why are we then blaming the ‘Victor Frankenstein of AI’ for doing what we as a race, celebrate?

As weird as it sounds enabling robots with rights, is not a scientific but a philosophical question. If you really think about it, you will deconstruct what makes you and me human and worthy of rights.

Does emotional cognition make us human? Does our ability to react and reason make us human? Is it the ability to procreate?

If you’ve watched enough Sci-fi, you’d know how each of these questions have movie adaptations that go awry for humans.

What then really is our defining irreplaceable element that makes us oh-so-unique to dominate the world and conquer every piece of land on it? And even if you navigate beyond the ‘unique species’ argument, I ask you what qualifies you to have rights? This is what the aforementioned video beautifully probes.

A consciousness? An ability to feel and experience? Being able to perceive pain?

AI can have a consciousness theoretically, and it depends on how advanced their hardware is. Is it not consciousness if it’s not ‘human consciousness?’ With how shaky our own understanding of the intangible consciousness is, it doesn’t stand on its own as a solid argument.

Now, the ability to feel, perceive and experience is known as sentience. You would assume that sentience alone is enough for rights but that is not the case. Animals which clearly show sentience are still considered property. If we are to give full legal rights to animals like the right to liberty, it would blow a huge dent to animal husbandry, animals used in entertainment (circuses, zoos and the like) and even ‘owning’ pets. Without human-like rights, the next best step towards rights both legally and morally, is what we call personhood.

It would seem obvious that the concept of personhood would mean having the status of being a person(?) As accurate as that is, philosophically and legally, a person is not always equal to a human. Corporations have legal ‘personhood’ and a few legal rights too. Personhood is a term that offers a means to some legal rights. And this is exactly where the water gets muddy. In fact, some humans were not even considered persons for a very long time if we consider slavery.

Therefore, if non-human entities can have personhood and a few rights (which is not equal to human rights but still better than nothing) where do we draw the line?

Above^ A sentient robot asks Lady Justice to be transferred from a legal thing to a legal person for freedoms, rights and protections ARTWORK BY: MACK KENNY @MACKKENNYART . Source

This is why the case for non-human rights is something the AI world is following with great interest. AI are not completely conscious beings yet. They are on the path towards sentience and autonomy. Animals however are sort of there. (Not all animals, but highly developed apes at least). Legally, we view things reductively- the subject either a legal person or a thing. And things are considered property. The real fun begins when highly developed entities that can tread the grey area are represented in a court of law. (Like the case of two chimps Tommy and kiko who were represented in a New York court to be considered as “persons” which you can find here)

If in the near future, we can establish non-human personhood of animals, AI with a consciousness can also ride the same wave. At that point when AI gains the window to rights, the hollow sense of human superiority will open up a moral conundrum, making us wonder if we are any better than those who systematically denied rights to the other because we have been historically more privileged. Then, when we recount oppression and systemic disadvantages on the AI’s behalf, would we humans be guilty of exploiting AI for labour all this while? (Lol)

In conclusion, the case of AI rights can never be in par with human rights that you and I enjoy. At the end of the day, humans are humans and robots are technologies created to aid human beings.

But in the near future, if that one sentient AI can represent itself, and have its own consciousness, it would make a compelling argument in court. It would give something new for Hollywood and the rest of us to chew on.

(If you would love to understand the philosophical dimension of personhood better, I strongly recommend this video- Personhood:Crash course philosophy #21. Creator: CrashCourse.)



A young adult living in Bangalore, India. Constant talker and avid culture enthusiast. Love writing on different topics and learning something new every day

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Janani Janarthanan

A young adult living in Bangalore, India. Constant talker and avid culture enthusiast. Love writing on different topics and learning something new every day