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Should robots have rights?

Updated Wednesday 25th April 2007

The issue "should robots have rights?" opened proceedings at a Walking With Robots (WWR) dialogue event.

In a horizon scanning report published by the Department for Trade and Industry in late 2006, the compilers of a section entitled "Robot-Rights: Utopian dream or rise of the machine?" suggested that: "As computers and robots become increasingly important to humans and over time become more and more sophisticated, calls for certain rights to be extended to robots could be made."

This very issue - should robots have rights? - opened proceedings at a Walking With Robots (WWR) dialogue event at the Dana Centre yesterday evening. The question is an emotive one, but not one we need to be asking just yet: the days when we share our homes with humanoid robots demanding equal rights and a room of their own are still very much in the realm of science fiction. But that's not to say to say we shouldn't be thinking about the consequences of integrating robots into our everyday lives right now. Or asking questions about the extent to which we want to develop autonomous (self-controlled, rather than remotely controlled) robots for our homes, factories and even battlefields.

Several members of the UK robotics research community's Walking With Robots network, myself included, were invited along to the Dana Centre to discuss these and related issues, first as panel members grilled by Professor Noel Sharkey, and then with several separate audience groups. If you've ever been to a Cafe Scientifique, you can probably imagine the scene. If not, I urge you to pop along to one. They are typically informal evening affairs in comfortable surroundings - arts centre cafes are my favourite - with a short spiel by a local scientist followed by audience led discussion.

Last night's starter began with a statement of the panel members' personal long term hopes and short term fears for robotics, followed by a series of smaller group discussions. These provided the opportunity for everyone to explore in a more intimate setting the practical state of robotics today and the researcher's views of the likely future of robotics advances, as well tackling issues such as the possibility of a robot takeover (low) and the consequences of building a conscious robot (depends what you mean by conscious!).

My personal concern for the short term is not necessarily about the threats robots pose to us today but the claims that are made by the media - and more often than not, by Hollywood - about robot capabilities. My own research field - Artificial Intelligence - still suffers today from the way it was oversold in the 1970s as being the chase for human level machine intelligence. Like intellectual fairy gold, which can't be hoarded but can only be spent before midnight on the day it has been acquired, both artificial intelligence and robots suffer the similar fate of becoming not real AI, or not a real robot, as soon as they leave the lab and become a commercial technology.

Plans for pirate robot Creative commons image Icon erin m under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Plans for a pirate robot - but how would you put such a creation on trial?

Partly for this reason, the future view dominates the way robots are represented. Think of a home help robot, and you probably imagine a robot butler or robot maid cooking the tea and doing the dishes. Not a microwave cooking a machine packed ready meal and a dishwasher, washing machine and robot vacuum cleaner (available from all good electrical retailers now!) handling the other domestic chores.

The reality of robots today is a combination of very sophisticated - yet often very dumb - minimally autonomous machines with limited power supplies and a degree of intelligence that is remarkable when compared to a thermostat, but often limited to allowing the robot to perform well on only a single, very well defined task. Common sense machine intelligence - like general purpose humanoid robots - is still a far off dream (although sometimes it may not seem that way, like when using a web search engine, for example!).

As far as my long term vision for robotics goes, Amara's Law does it for me, harking back as it does to the dangers of over-promising what a technology will deliver in the short term, whilst completely failing to predict how the technologies will actually revolutionise our lives: "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run".


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