Can Robots be People Too?

With robots impacting on so many aspects of our daily lives, we explore the extent to which they are being treated like humans, and what this means for our relationships with them. Can robots be people too – do they have rights?

Interactions between humans and robots are still relatively rare but inevitably on the increase, as, for example, logistics businesses experiment with robots delivering items to people’s houses. These interactions are not guaranteed to go well – the deployment of a robot called Serve in San Francisco had to be halted after members of the public complained about its presence on the streets. Only by changing the design to make it appear less austere and more lovable with flashing lights and a more friendly ‘face’ could the technology re-appear on the streets.

Design influences how prepared humans are to interact with the robot. Give it something resembling a face, and movements that begin to mirror human actions, then people become more interactive, and project feelings and narratives onto that inanimate object.

This brings into play concerns about the extent to which humans can become attached to robots. Some artificial intelligence systems enable the robot to appear socially and emotionally aware – yet the responses are often pre-determined. Appearing to be empathetic doesn’t mean that empathy, a human feeling, actually exists.

Projecting human traits onto machines doesn’t make the robot more human. The assemblage of metal, plastic and electronics can never take on a sentient presence – but do they have rights? This question is exercising many minds, particularly when Saudi Arabia made Sophia, a human-like machine, a Saudi citizen in 2017.  Experts argue that some rights can be accorded to robots, such as the right to be protected from harm. There is even an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots  which argues that although artificially created, robots are sentient beings. We think there’s a long way to go before people would be persuaded of this but it’s a thought-provoking issue!