RLAI Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence (RLAI)

Should artificially intelligent robots have the same rights as people?

edited by Rich Sutton --Rich Sutton, Oct 13 2004

This web page is a record of the debate held on October 13 2004, in an iCORE seminar video cast among the Universities of Calgary, Alberta, and Lethbridge.  The following question was debated:

Should artificially intelligent robots have the same rights as people?

Below are comments from the public on the debate topic.

Questions that must be answered before the debate question can be answered

Rich's thoughts begin with the qualification: "The question is really only interesting if we consider robots with intellectual abilities equal to or greater than our own. If they are less then that, then we will of course accord them lesser rights just as we do with animals and children."

First, I think the statement as recorded here is vague. We could argue that "robots" already have intellectual abilities greater than our own in many regards. They have perfect memory and can perform complex mathematical calculations in a fraction of the time it would take any human.

So, let's first tighten the premise: "Robots which are functionally indistinguishable from humans should afforded the same rights as humans." By functionally indistinguishable I mean that anything a reasonable human can be expected to do, they can do as well. This not only includes physical tasks and activities, but mental ones, such as expressing and forming opinions on new subjects, learning, and graceful social interaction.

The point is, if we make a strong enough assumption of their abilities, it is ludicrous to assume that we shouldn't give rights to such beings.

The question then becomes: (1) is it possible to ever build such beings, and (2) how do we measure when we have built them?

I have my own opinion about the first question, but regardless of whether I am correct or not, we probably expect that through the passage of time the answer to (1) will become more or less obvious, although this is not necessarily entirely true:

The famed Turing Test is supposed to help us answer question (2), but history has shown us that the Turing Test is inadequate for such a task. Humans vary in intelligence, so writing a computer program that makes spelling mistakes, types slowly, and can't answer any questions is as likely to pass the Turing Test as one that tries to display true intelligence.

In the same manner, "pet" robots are already being created that mimic facial expressions designed to make us believe that they are capable of emotion. So, even if it isn't possible to build fully reasoning beings, it may be possible to fool most of the population into thinking we have. And what if we do? Does that mean that they deserve the full rights accorded to humans? I think not, especially if there is the potential for humans to be "pulling the strings" behind these robots.

Intertwined with this issue is the question of what makes humans unique. Are we simply more complex beings, such that given a sufficiently more complex computer doing simulation, we would be fully predictable?

Instead of debating about whether robots deserve rights, it is these questions that need to be answered, for when they are answered adequately, we will know whether robots deserve rights themselves. 

Can a robot be truly autonomous? The lumberjack robot.

Much like the above poster brought up regarding whether or not humans would become essentially predictable given a sufficiently complex model, my main concerns with robot rights stem from the notions of self-determination, free will, or unconstrained autonomy. Once an equivalent level of autonomy is established, I agree that we have no choice but to afford the robot every right afforded to humans. However, I am not sure we will ever really be able to say that a robot is truly autonomous, as a human is always in the loop, having created the machine – not through a biological process which humans only initiate before it escape from their control – but by using techniques that were created through years of rigorous scientific research.

Let’s assume I build a robot with a clear purpose: a lumberjack robot. I want the machine to be adaptable, as we will be sending it to some far-off planet where we just discovered forests, and it won’t have human supervision. So in addition to programming it to chop wood, I design it to be able to handle the whole shebang, it has the ability to move, speak, plan, repair itself, defend itself and provide for itself. I run a bunch of simulations with the AI in a virtual forest, and it looks great. I get the go-ahead to build a prototype and I do. I take it out to the woods near by and tell it to go to work. It does so for two days before it informs me that it would rather be a football player.

At what point does this scenario stop being my mistake as a programmer, and start being the robot’s autonomous decision?

Does it depend on the machine’s reasoning? Would it matter if it explained that it could use the extra money it makes on a football player’s salary to hire people to cut the wood for it? What if it told me to cut my own damn wood? What if it recited a poem about how boring it finds would cutting? What if it beat me in a game of chess?

-- Colin 

Autonomy is a matter of degrees, from human to hammer, with the lumberjack robot in between.

Can you imagine a computer program that informs you it would rather be a football player? (That is assuming that you have not directly instructed it to do that.) I don't know if the scenario you (Colin) describe could be attributed to a mistake in the programming - and even if it is, if it is truly independent behaviour, so what? We gain something evolutionarily from "mistakes" in our programming. I don't think the issue is nearly so much the *source* of the behaviour as the behaviour itself.

But of course we don't know what autonomous behaviour looks like anyway, except that we feel our own behaviour is autonomous. I don't think autonomy is a binary, that you either are or aren't. I think there's degrees, and we hope we're on the highest end of the scale (sorry for all the weasel words: I feel myself to be an extremely autonomous being, but I don't know if it's a verifiable fact). This matters, because if we think we are autonomous and everything else isn't, we can perfectly arbitrarily decide that robots will never be autonomous, no matter how *arbitrary* their behaviour appears to be - it's just a bug in the programming, dictating those seemingly autonomous actions. Unfortunately the same argument applies to us - maybe all my seemingly autonomous decisions really come down to random subatomic particle movements. You certainly can't prove that it doesn't.

So the issue of *proving* that robots are autonomous is a red herring - why hold them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves? Which means we're back around to robots *seeming* autonomous.

This is a sticky one, as Nathan points out. Even ELIZA has fooled (some) people (sometimes). I imagine there's agreement that ELIZA and other chatbots are *not* autonomous, or not anywhere near human-level autonomous. Yet even those programs are closer to humans on an autonomy scale than, say, a hammer. A hammer is a completely inanimate object. A program, particularly a learning program, may operate under completely understood rules, but at least it has some "choice" about what weights to use, what value to save. Still, it *seems* nothing like autonomy really. And I don't want to argue that ELIZA has rights. So, no, even though superficially ELIZA may seem to enjoy talking to me, or my pet robot frowns at me when it's "unhappy", these are not reliable indicators of autonomy or independence.

But it seems to me a lumberjack robot saying it wanted to be a football player would be a much stronger indicator of autonomy. What's the difference?  -- Anna Koop, Mon Oct 18
        15:43:07 2004

In man or machine, is faked love any different from real love?

An interesting question that came up in Lethbridge (after the debate) about the movie "AI" -- an audience member claimed the ending was a cop-out -- the movie should have ended under water, the stalled vehicle in front of the blue fairy.

But there is a message in what is, I think, the bleakness of the actual ending. The robot is offered the choice of an illusory happy ending -- the love for his mother returned by the (illusion of the) mother herself. He chooses the happy ending, as do many in the audience. But the love, from the mother's end anyway, is faked. She never loved him, and she never will, now that she is dead.

The message: it doesn't matter. Faked love is as good as real love. Or worse, there's nothing more to what we call "real" love than what we are prepared to call "fake" love in the context of the movie, either the love of the robot for his mother or the love of the mother for the robot in the illusory ending provided by higher beings.

So instead of asking whether computers could ever experience real love, we should be asking whether we can. We are just processors built by a non-intelligent design process, namely, natural selection. So how do we know what we feel is real, since there is nothing particularly special about us from a design perspective? If we say, "that's just what it feels like to us," well, then, if it feels the same way to the machine, that's all there is to it.

The other interesting sidelight is the failure of the mother to actually attach to the robot, given how it is behaving. People can attach to their pet dogs and even their pet turtles. Why can't she attach to her new son? Human love appears to be fickle, and subject to what we believe to be true, not what may or may not be true of the creatures we interact with. Another reason to think real love is itself fake, or perhaps more optimistically, fake love is as good as it gets, and what we get is (generally) pretty good.