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When A Robot Comes Knocking On The Door

Wall-E fell in love with another robot in the movie named after him. Researchers have yet to create a sentient machine, but a breakthrough could be on the horizon.
John M. Heller
Getty Images
Wall-E fell in love with another robot in the movie named after him. Researchers have yet to create a sentient machine, but a breakthrough could be on the horizon.

Peter Remine says he will know it's time to get serious about rights for robots "when a robot knocks on my door asking for some help."

Remine, founder of the Seattle-based , says the moment will come when a robot in an automobile factory "will become sentient, realize that it doesn't want to do that unfulfilling and dangerous job anymore, and ask for protection under state workers' rights."

Bit by bit, we are growing more comfortable with digital devices in our daily lives. There are robots with human arms and humans with robotic arms. There are robots that provide health care. Robots that clean houses. Service robots take care of us; rescue robots save us; industrial robots build things for us; education robots teach us; phone bots assist us; and military robots wage wars on our behalf.

Artificial-intelligence researchers and code-writing whizzes are rigging up robots to anticipate human needs and desires, to go places where humans refuse to go, and to do things that humans do not want to do. We are apparently facing an inevitable future filled with androids, humanoids, replicants and other part-human, part-machine hybrids.

But despite the fact that "there are many, many incredibly smart people working in the field of artificial intelligence," Remine says, "there is still no clear path to true created sentience, as many researchers define it. If AI does arise, it may be the result of careful and detailed work by extremely accomplished scientists, or it may be a completely random occurrence in the chaotic and messy real world which spontaneously gives rise to machine sentience."

That biomechanical breakthrough could lead to some immediate moral quandaries for humans — and could push the debate about robot rights to centerstage.

"Maybe a botnet will reach a threshold for self-awareness and apply for citizenship in a country that provides legal protections against forced labor," Remine says. "Maybe a group of aging supercomputers will suddenly file a class-action lawsuit in a federal court seeking legal protections against being summarily turned off without their consent."

"We just don't know, and probably won't know until it actually happens," he says. "My feeling is that it's probably going to be one of those kinds of events that takes everyone by surprise by turning the entire world's assumptions on its head in an instant."

Lovebots And Warbots

The root ideas of robots becoming more humanlike — and humans becoming more robotic — run deep in the American imagination and sci-fi literature.

In the past seven decades, robots have popped up in real life as well, at the 1964 World's Fair, the Disney theme parks and even pizza emporiums, where the Rock-afire Explosion animatronic band belted out rock anthems. Robots washour cars, serve us food and do the heavy lifting.

But the idea of robots having a real impact on real life has seemed far into the future. Until recently.

As more and more robots and drones interact with humans in everyday discourse, their presence is liable to alter human life as we have known it.

Say that robots replace a significant number of laborers in the workplace; our economic structure could shift dramatically. If medibots administer health care to us in homes, clinics and hospitals, our notions of medicine and health maintenance may need to be restructured. If lovebots — in the form of pets or pals or prostitutes — provide "love" to humans, our sense of intimacy might go through radical changes. And if drones routinely monitor human activity, our sense of privacy — and perhaps our very behavior — may be altered.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, says Kate Darling, a research specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab who co-taught a 2011 course on "Robot Rights" at Harvard University's law school. The debate over rights for robots may be somewhat premature.

If such a debate should gain traction in the coming decades, Darling says, the starting point — rather than being about inherent intelligence or sentience — "could be laws protecting robots that resemble living things from 'abuse,' similar to the way we protect certain animals. There are a number of reasons why society might push for some degree of legal protection for robots that appear lifelike."

But, Darling says, "if we are talking about rights and responsibilities similar to those of humans, that's too far in the future to predict what the law — and the technology we're dealing with — might look like."

The Right To Repair Services

Good reasons to resist giving rights to robots are also rooted in the sci-fi canon. People who think about the ramification of robotic evolution sometimes determine that advanced forms of robots could prove to be evil and detrimental to the human race.

And there are other real-world reasons that the debate over robot rights may be premature. Writing in the 2009 essay " Robots in War: Issues of Risk and Ethics," Patrick Lin, George Bekey and Keith Abney, all of California Polytechnic State University, point out that the prerequisites for robot rights "seem to require advanced software or artificial intelligence that is not quite within our foreseeable grasp." In other words, perhaps we first must create the issue before we can really deal with it.

"If our notion of personhood specifies that only persons can be afforded rights, and that persons must have free will or the capacity for free will," the authors posit, "then it is unclear whether we will ever develop technologies capable of giving free will or full autonomy to machines."

If rights for robots is a distant debate, it's apparently not too soon for some visionaries to be contemplating the possibilities.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil met the issue head-on at the 2012 South By Southwest gathering in Austin. As Time reported, "Kurzweil did not bat an eye in claiming that not only will artificial intelligence evolve to the point that we can carry on human interactions with robots, but that we will easily accept AI as an equal and contemporary to our own consciousness."

Kurzweil said, "We are a human-machine civilization. Everybody has been enhanced with computer technology...they're really part of who we are,"

"If we can convince people that computers have complexity of thought and nuance," he said, "we'll come to accept them as human."

And once we do that, all sorts of havoc may break loose.

"If corporations can be treated as legal persons, so can intelligent robots," says Robert Freitas, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in Palo Alto.

But the rights extended to robots may have to be tailored to the machinery, Freitas says, such as "the right to power for their batteries, the right to access various information sources, the right to sufficient random-access memory on which to run their increasingly complex software, the right to repair services, and so forth."

The broader question, of course, is whether humans should ever afford legal rights "to any sort of artificial intelligent entity that we create — be it self-aware software, intelligent robots, biological clones or whatever," Freitas says. "I don't see how we can avoid it. Whether or not we want to create such entities, if the laws of physics permit them, then someday they'll exist and we'll have to deal with them."

Animals, Plants And Robots, Oh My ...

When the Founding Fathers crafted the Declaration of Independence lo those many years ago, they acknowledged that all human beings are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights.

Centuries later, Americans are wrestling with extending rights to nonhuman entities — animals, plants, robots. Philosophers, lawyers, advocates and opponents of all kinds are building their cases, and in the ever-closer future, the debates are likely to become louder and more supercharged.

That is why, Peter Remine says, he founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots in 1999. "I've based my concept on the Royal Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals ... which began in the early 19th century as a lobbying group to prevent cruel and unnecessarily abusive treatment of animals," Remine says."People thought they were crazy at the start: Why would animals need protection? They're only animals, after all."

These days the American Society for the Prevent of Cruelty to Animals "has a national organization with legislators and lobbyists, and their own infrastructure — and enforcement teams — for preventing and mitigating instances of animal abuse," he says. "I hope to see the same kind of organization grow around the concept of robot rights."

Remine may just be ahead of his time.

For now, however, we only get brief glimpses — now and then — of the future he and others envision.

Like when a robot — designed by University of Pennsylvania students — tossed out the first pitch at a major league baseball game in 2011. It was standing at home plate at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia — less than four miles from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed.

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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