Should Robots Have Rights?

Would you murder a robot? If you did, should you be charged for it?

3D Robot Joe
Would you murder this robot? Image: Simon Abrams

Kate Darling, a legal scholar working with the Berkman Center, is trying to answer questions most people have never even thought about: Would you murder a robot? If you did, should you be charged for it?

Darling set up a heart breaking experiment. Participants are given an adorable dinosaur robot and given time to bond with it. Then they're handed knives, hatchets and weapons and instructed to turn them on the dinosaur they just learned to love. People's reactions? Horror. Richard Fisher from BBC Future reports:

After an hour of play, the people refused to hurt their Pleo with the weapons they had been given. So then Darling started playing mind games, telling them they could save their own dinosaur by killing somebody else’s. Even then, they wouldn’t do it.

Finally, she told the group that unless one person stepped forward and killed just one Pleo, all the robots would be slaughtered. After much hand-wringing, one reluctant man stepped forward with his hatchet, and delivered a blow to a toy.

After this brutal act, the room fell silent for a few seconds, Darling recalls. The strength of people’s emotional reaction seemed to have surprised them.

This moral quandary, whether or not to torture and kill a pile of parts, has implications for our future selves, argues Darling. The fact is that we're going to interact with robots more and more, and we currently don't have a moral or legal framework to do so. Ethan Zuckerman explains:

People are going to keep creating these sorts of robots, if only because toy companies like to make money. And if we have a deep tendency to bond with these robots, we may need to discuss the idea of instituting protections for social robots. We protect animals, Kate explains. We argue that it’s because they feel pain and have rights. But it’s also because we bond with them and we see an attack on an animal as an attack on the people who are bonded with and value that animal.

Not only are we going to interact more with machines, but our interactions with them are going to become more symbolic, Darling argues. Robots could learn to feel pain, and the way adults treat robots could teach their children what is and isn't acceptable. In many ways, Darling argues, robots are no different from animals. But animals are protected under the law. Robots are not—not yet, at least.

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