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

What's to come?
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.

DHL microdrone
When drones deliver your packages, they'll need the right to enter and perform contracts, among other freedoms and obligations.

Photo by Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court recognized that corporations are entitled to religious freedom under the First Amendment, much as actual people are. This further expands the “legal personhood” of corporations. They have the right to own property, enter into and enforce contracts, and make political expenditures under the First Amendment. However, corporations also have some of the obligations of real people: They can be sued and held liable under civil and criminal law.

These rights and responsibilities stem from federal and state laws, which recognize that corporations are “people” in certain situations. The idea of “legal personhood” existed in America originally to promote the work of the country’s first corporations: banks, insurance companies, water companies, and transportation companies. At the time, these corporations were viewed as providing essential public services. They needed to have some of the rights and responsibilities of real people to provide those services.

I wouldn’t disagree that we’ve gone too far in considering corporations people under the law. But the initial reasoning for corporate legal personhood—treat them as legal persons so they can be beneficial—is still sound. The reasoning is also sound for robots.

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We are beginning to see autonomous technology and artificial intelligence that we will interact with as we would with other people. We’ll talk to our self-driving cars, rely on drones instead of the FedEx guy to deliver packages, and use original media and content (like recipes) produced by machines. To help ensure that our interactions with these robots are beneficial and occur as intended, we need state legislatures and Congress to pass laws that grant limited legal personhood to these types of technology. After all, if we are dealing with robots like they are real people, the law should recognize that those interactions are like our interactions with real people. In some cases, that will require recognizing that the robots are insurable entities like real people or corporations and that a robot’s liability is self-contained. In the same way you cannot sue a person who is nearby an accident if he did nothing to cause the accident, you should not be able to sue the owner or operator of an autonomous drone who did nothing wrong while the drone was autonomously operating. At the same time, victims of drone accidents need to have recourse to recover for their injuries, and the drone’s insurance provides them with that.

Similarly, when you use a grocery delivery drone and its software to determine your food needs, make your order, and deliver it, the store will actually have very little interaction directly with your order. When there's a problem with your order, from a legal perspective, your claim will be against the drone and its insurance, so you will need to have a contract with the machine. Otherwise, you’ll need to sue the store to get to the drone, despite the retailer’s relative innocence. At other times, like when a drone is acting in the place of a delivery person, the law will need to adequately recognize that the drone is an agent for the retail company and the contracts it forms are binding against the company.

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