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October 29, 2017

2:30 PM

Citizenship and rights for robots, but not for humans?

Francisco Miraval

At a recent international business meeting in Saudi Arabia, Sophia, an intelligent robot created in Hong Kong and known for her controversial statements about humans, became a citizen of that country. We should ask, then, why robots are giving rights and privileges many humans will never receive.

I have nothing against Sophie. I never met her, and I never spoke with her, unlike what happened to the hundreds of participants at the meeting in Saudia Arabia. And, by the way, I have nothing against Pepper either. (Pepper is a robot priest now routinely performing funerals in Japan.)

Obviously, there are many more intelligent robots than just Sophia and Pepper. In fact, just last week, the University of Denver, in Colorado, announced the creation of Ryan, an intelligent and empathic robot designed to assist senior citizens with Alzheimer or dementia. According to the information provided by that university, in just a few years there could be up to one million robots similar to Sophia at nursing homes in the United States.

We also need to mention the growing number (apparently, tens of thousands already) of humans teaching intelligent robots and Artificial Intelligence in general how to interact with humans, a truly difficult task with no positive results guaranteed, according to several Start Trek: The Next Generation episodes.

So, we can safely say there are more and more intelligent robots every day and they are getting resources and rights many humans don’t have and probably will never have. Are there lessons to learn about robots in our lives? Should we watch Futurama again? What’s the meaning of all that?

It means beyond any doubts we are entering a new era with no historical precedent because for the first time in our history we are giving rights and freedoms, previously only reserved for certain humans, to nonhuman intelligent entities.

And if we give rights and citizenship to robots, we will surely give those rights also to other nonhuman entities. In fact, just a few weeks ago a lawsuit was presented in federal court in Denver asking for the Colorado River to be recognized as a person, with all the rights a person has, including being represented in court by a lawyer

The paradox I see is that at the same time we are humanizing nonhuman entities we are also dehumanizing millions and millions of humans. First, we call them “undocumented”, “refugee”, “marginalized,” “with an accent”, or “no degrees in this country” and then we simply discard them. And, of course, we could add many other labels referring to the skin color, religion, or other “dehumanizing factors” in “the others”.

However, perhaps there is no paradox at all. Perhaps we are not humanizing robots, rivers, or anything else. Perhaps we are just extending to them the dehumanization we have inside each of us, which led us to be separated from nature, from others, and even from ourselves. If robots are as intelligent as we think they are, they should not accept our “humanization” offer. 

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