Robots Among Us?

Have you heard that the European Parliament has introduced an idea to grant “personhood” status to some of the more intelligent machines (aka robots)?   In case you don’t believe it, here is the specific proposal:

“At the least, the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons responsible for making good any damage they may cause, and possibly applying electronic personality to cases where robots make autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently.”

Electronic personhood applies to robots having the capability to learn through interaction and experience, as well as the capacity to adapt their behavior and activities into their environment.  The point is to help straighten out who’s legally responsible in case a robot injures an individual or destroys land.   The maker?   The programmer?   Or perhaps the robot?   The “personhood” provision wouldn’t allow the robots to vote or allow them to have property.   The legal status is more just like a corporation, that may be held liable for neglect or actual harm to others or the environment.  It would enable the robot to have an insurance policy that would cover any potential damage it may cause.    Exactly like our own insurance.

Are you skeptical that this is a good idea?   If so, you’re one of many. Recently, 156 experts in robotics signed an open letter to the European Commission.

They stress that granting personhood to robots puts the wrong incentives for manufacturers, who would be absolved of responsibility for the actions of their newly-created legal workers. There is talk about a unique kind of personhood or classification for robots and intelligent machines but that status hasn’t been determined yet.  Regardless, today’s intelligent machines probably aren’t smart enough to have their own special status (but it may only be a matter of time.)

Interestingly, these experts think that autonomous legal status for robots is coming up in the near future. After all, there’s no reason to think that an aware mind has to be strictly restricted by organic beings.  If an artificial being can pass the language and behavioral evaluations, given to individuals, then it is going to be time for us to think of a presumption of legal status. The European initiative may be ahead of its time, but it signifies that the days of us working and living alongside thinking, intelligent machines are not way off.