A piece in the FT today on the rights of robots:
Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.
In the same article, a robotician asks:
Would it be acceptable to kick a robotic dog even though we shouldn’t kick a normal one?
If it’s cocking its leg and pissing over your DVD player, then why not? What about the rights of DVD players?
Now I’m not the most forward-thinking of persons of flesh and blood, but a robotic dog is not, and can never be actually a dog: it will always be a robot. Its bark, as well as its bite, will be fulfilling a human purpose (or lack of purpose, if it is some product of artistic endeavour). If it tries to bite a postman, it will do so because some human has decided that this is the sort of thing that robot dogs ought to do, and not because this is something innate to its being.
Real dogs, on the other hand, may make excellent pets, but that is not what they are born to do. Rather, making an excellent pet is just something that humans assign to dogs. Dogs themselves are just dogs, and if being a dog happens to entail making an excellent pet or biting a postman from the point of view of a human, then that is what a dog will do.
So it seems to me that there is a rather obvious difference between a dog and a robotic simulation of a dog. Nothing of a robot dog’s being will be innate, since robot dogs cannot be born in the way that, say, the dog who played Lassie was born.
It is hard to imagine, then, how anything that is not born and does not die can have rights, since it does not live in the first place. Yes, you can say that your computer just died on you, but that is not the same as your milkman just dying on you. The man who delivers the milk does not exist simply because you like to eat weetabix every morning. Likewise, a dog is not a dog because he is running after the stick you have thrown for him.
A robot dog, or a robot milkman for that matter, would exist only insofar as they fulfil a human requirement. It might be possible to make them feel pain, or cock their leg at every passing lamp-post, but these things arise because a human has decided that this is what they ought to do. So, from the beginning, they cannot have rights in any universal sense, because their existence is fully determined by humans. It is hard to conceive of a situation where this could be any other way.
Maybe you can speak of robots having rights in terms of the human purpose they meet, but this would not be all that different to saying that a hospital should not be bombed, or a car should not be driven with bald tyres. The only difference, as far as I can see, is that the need to call these ‘rights’ arises from an anthromorphic impulse on the part of the human.