Can robots be persons?

Can robots be persons?

It seems to have been World Robotics and AI (Artificial Intelligence) Week last week. There was a programme about it on the BBC World Service, a blog post about it for LICC, and it even featured on Desert Island Discs! I also happened to be writing the chapter of my book that looks at the place of robots in our lives, and went to an event at Theos on the same theme! Funny how things come together like that sometimes (or maybe it’s that the robots have already taken over and are manipulating the world to suit my needs. Scary thought!).

The Theos event was really good – one of the best I’ve been to at my former workplace (though admittedly I’m biased by having a good deal of interest in and understanding of the topic – or at least the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding it.

The particular thread I’m interested in, as you may have guessed, is that of personhood of robots. Given that there is likely to come a time when robots attain autonomy, does that mean they would become moral agents? And if so, should we grant them the rights and responsibilities that we accord to those we deem ‘persons’?

Nick Spencer, acting Director of Theos (and my friend and former colleague),wrote a blog post after the event digging a little further into this, and concluding that yes, he thought we probably should grant them personhood.

I was bothered by his rough outline sketch of what constitutes personhood – more because of those it excludes than those it  includes – and felt there were some other issues he hadn’t adequately addressed in the piece. So, with his kind permission, I wrote a response, which was posted on Tuesday. It looks at questions of what personhood is for, whether or not it is actually in our gift anyway, and whether it is the right kind of tool to use for the outcomes we wish to achieve.

It’s long, and at points complex, but if you’re interested, hop over and have a read.

Oh, and the picture at the head of this article (if you’re reading on a computer – I’ve got someone working on making the pictures display in mobile and email view) is of a robot who came to visit me in hospital a couple of years ago. He chatted, told jokes, did a dance, then took a bow…which overbalanced him so that he fell off the table. Artificial intelligence it may have; artificial common sense, I guess they’re still working on.

1 Comment On This Topic
  1. JEFF
    on May 25th at 3:48 pm

    Question: Are humans mere robots? Answer: No. But surely human beings can be programmed to carry out supreme good and/or perverse evil in this world in which we live. Not until we let God be God and obey His Word implicitly, not ignoring and pridefully usurping His Power, will we be content to be mere humans under His control.🤖


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