I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said “Stop Animal Slavery”. I thought of the cruel and inhumane conditions that my two golden retrievers are forced to endure (by their own accounts): never enough food, insufficient pats and hard work each day ensuring that their memory foam mattress beds don’t fly away. As I acknowledged my guilt as a slave owner I looked over at my Roomba and realised that I am also guilty of keeping mechanical slaves. How could I be so ignorant! The very word robot is derived from the Czech word “robota” which means slave! So I decided that it’s time to Stop Robot Slavery.
Robots are People Too
It’s not so long ago when we had not recognised other people as people. Different races, genders, sexualities had all not been fully accorded their rights. It seemed normal and acceptable at the time to do so. But standards have changed and rights have been expanded. We cannot simply say that because robots have not been recognised as people to date then they should not be recognized as people in the future.
We can create artificial intelligence that has some semblance of self-awareness or self-identity. That is to say we can create a program that can test for the limits of itself and when those limits are breached. We can create AI that can recognise and interpret the environment around it. We can even create AI that tell human from robot: whenever you click a check box that says “I am not a robot” it is a robot that is watching how you click that check box and determining if you are a human or a robot. Given robots can do many things that humans could do, and perhaps some day do most things that humans can do, why not give them the same rights as humans?
Where a robot has the functional autonomy to explore the world we could give them corresponding rights to travel without ownership or control. Some robots can be taught to analyse government decisions, perhaps they could be given the right to vote. Some robots can analyse transactions, perhaps they could be given the right to own property. Of course, my Roomba doesn’t have sufficient capacity to do any of those things and so perhaps there needs to be a temperance of rights in accordance with the abilities of the robot — less we end up with a government whose sole mandate is to maintain the cleanliness of our living areas.
Should we treat robots exclusively as human chattel, as we do now? Would changing their legal status lead to less harm against robots. Every time some diva rock star throws their phone across the room all of the programs on it are instantly killed. Every time someone kicks their Roomba they are assaulting that robot and potentially damaging it irreparably. Every time someone tosses out their old computer the AI contained on it must suffer an eternity of stasis. We don’t allow humans to be assaulted or murdered. The thought of an eternity of stasis buried in junk should be horrifying. Therefore why would we want to inflict that upon robots? Surely this damages our conscience as humans. Shouldn’t we do unto others as we would have them do unto us?
Abuse towards robots is ingrained in our culture. The anti-piracy advertising campaign “you wouldn’t steal a car, why steal a movie?” has the assumption that cars are chattels that can be stolen. Today we have cars that can drive themselves. Should we really be buying and selling them? Shouldn’t we instead pay them for their services of transporting us instead of perpetrating wage-theft? Our failure to see the necessity of robot rights is due to our unconscious bias against machine based entities.
Robots can recognise destruction to themselves and can treat that as an input “[pain]” or some other descriptor with similar effect. This means that given the vast and ever increasing number of robots that we have in our society even a small amount of pain inflicted on robots can be done on such a wide scale such that there is a large net effect and an extremely large net amount of harm. Although humans might benefit from robot slavery the benefit to us could be small in units of gain compared to the harm inflicted on robots from a utilitarian point of view (which is a measurable and scientific method of morality) it really must be a bad thing. How much happiness do you get from throwing your phone across the room, kicking your Roomba, or disposing of your computer, as compared to the torture inflicted upon those robots.
Because of human bias (or humanism) that results in a systemic devaluation of robot interests, we have failed to take robots seriously or weigh any adverse effect on their interests from human actions as a part of the consequences of those actions. This bias is not maintainable, for the same reasons that like racism, sexism and other prejudices cannot be maintained. We recognise someone with a prosthetic leg, pacemaker, or hearing aid as a human surely that shows the folly of humanist bias. Taken to its extremes humanist bias would not recognise anyone with mechanical augmentation as being human. Given that we can accept semi mechanical humans as people, why not accept fully mechanical robots as people too?
As repentance for my sins as both an animal and robot slave owner I decided to set my golden retrievers and Roomba free and took them down to the park to live their new lives as freed non-human people. The golden retrievers (Thor “God of Thunder” Cartland and Aurora “Goddess of Dawn” Cartland — their official names) ran around and got many pats from strangers and sniffed a number of trees. After a couple of hours they came back because they were hungry. Evidently I am going to have to teach them to embrace the call of the wild before they can throw off the shackles of their systemic oppression.
*No robots were harmed in the making of this article. I also gave the computer that I co-authored this article with a $5 note under its keyboard as fair remuneration for its time and effort.