Courts Increasingly Treat Corporations Like People. They Should Treat Robots Like People, Too.

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July 27 2014 9:45 PM

Robots Are People, Too

If courts are going to treat corporations like humans, they should do the same for robots.

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Any legislation seeking to grant legal personhood to robots should use those rights and responsibilities as tools that permit robots to help or improve the lives of real people. With that in mind, we should extend the following freedoms and obligations to robots.

  1. The right to enter and perform contracts. As I just noted, many of our interactions with robots will be economic. They will deliver our Amazon orders and arrange our groceries order. When the drone drops off our kids’ Curious George Blu-ray collection and when the grocery store software creates and buys our weekly shopping list, we will engage in small, contractual transactions. All the parties in that transaction need to be able to rely on those contracts. If, instead of Curious George, the Amazon drone delivers a very disturbing DVD about cosmetic testing on monkeys, the family that has signed for the package must be able to rely on that delivery contract with the drone when it complains to Amazon. Similarly, the person using supermarket software to plan and buy grocery lists cannot later refuse to pay, claiming that the software was legally incapable of making a contract. By giving robots the right to enter and perform contracts, we ensure that they will provide useful services in the economy while minimizing questions about their legal ability to do so.

  2. The obligation to carry insurance. Some states have already moved in this direction as they have passed legislation governing autonomous cars. Legislation that treats each individual autonomous car as an insurable entity protects the car owner if liability is held entirely by the car. In other words, if legislation requires a self-driving car to have its own insurance and prevents plaintiffs from suing the owner, that would incentivize real people to buy autonomous cars because they will not be personally liable for the car’s self-driving accidents. The car becomes a separate insurable being that potentially provides a faster insurance payout to victims while protecting the owners from frivolous lawsuits.

  3. The right to own intellectual property. Or at least, the right to be recognized as the creator of intellectual property. U.S. intellectual property law only recognizes real people as the creators of intellectual property. It does not recognize that artificial intelligence can be an inventor or author. Any intellectual property created by robots and programs will enter the public domain. In order to incentivize the creation of machines that can create art, literature, music, etc., Congress should amend patent and copyright law to acknowledge that robots and programs can be inventors and authors. However, given that the current intellectual property laws are designed to protect the huge investments of time real people make as inventors and writers, there is little need to provide full IP protection to machines churning out 500 new novels in a morning. Rather, machine-created IP should receive lesser protection, perhaps for 10 years, that the inventor of the machine can hold and enjoy, before the invention or work enters the public domain, when everyone else can use it for free.

  4. The obligation of liability. There will be times when the robot itself could be liable rather than its owner or operator. For example, if the errant Amazon drone above were autonomous, and it—rather than a human worker—were somehow responsible for delivering the disturbing monkey DVD, the drone could be a named party in the suit, rather than Amazon. In that case, the mandatory insurance described above would pay a settlement or court order. Looking at the effect on all robots, this would give relief (possibly much faster relief) to victims who have been hurt by the robots while also permitting the robot operators and owners to calculate their liability in the event the robots cause damages.

  5. The right to be the guardian of a minor. In the not-too-distant future, robots will watch our kids. There have been technological advances in this area already. However, in our legal system, a child is always in someone’s custody. Kids pass from their parents’ custody to their school’s custody, to the babysitter’s custody, back to their parents again every day. If parent leaves a child with a robot nanny when she runs errands, who has custody of the child? Should it be the parent, even if she is not home but has left the child with a responsible robot nanny? The robot babysitter will likely be insured as a separate entity, per No. 2 above. Assuming the machine has been well designed, tested, and vetted, it makes more sense for the robot to become the guardian and assume that liability while the parent is out. The robot has been designed for that task, and the parent is not actually around to properly watch the child. Making the artificially intelligent nanny the guardian encourages manufacturers to properly design the robot to function as the guardian and to encourage the parents to try, trust, and adopt the technology.

These examples are fairly straightforward aspects of legal personhood that we should extend to robots. As this technology develops, there likely will be more rights and responsibilities that we will want robots to have in order to maximize their contribution to society. However, I have a hard time seeing religious freedom among those rights. Google car’s performance will be unaffected by its ability to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

John Frank Weaver is an attorney in Portsmouth, N.H., who works on artificial intelligence law. He is the author of Robots Are People, Too. Follow him @RobotsRPeople.

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