Robots are ‘electronic persons’, says EU

Watch this space: R2, a humanoid robot currently on the International Space Station. © NASA

Lawmakers should give robots rights and a legal status, according to a group of EU politicians. Is it immoral to harm a robot? Or should human needs always come before those of machines?

What’s happening

In 2015 hitchBOT was travelling from one coast of America to the other. But on August 1st it was found with its head and arms torn off. Last week an EU committee voted that lawmakers should treat robots as ‘electronic persons’ and recommended a measure which could have protected hitchBOT.

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Giving robots rights may sound strange. But robots have been humanised in films for decades, and as technology rapidly advances, a growing number of academics are beginning to talk about the ethics of robotics.

The reaction to hitchBOT’s ‘death’ suggests that humans can feel empathy towards robots. In one study, several people refused to beat small robots to death when they were asked to do so.

Why? Was this an immoral thing to do? Some thinkers argue the morality of an action should be judged by its impact on living things, particularly ones with feelings: animals should have rights, but not robots.

But others argue that the way you behave to a robot says a lot about how you treat living creatures. So should robots have rights?

Some say…

This may sound ridiculous now, but so did animal rights in the past. Robots may soon be able to suffer. This is also partly about us, and how we behave. What would you think if you saw someone attacking a robot? If we promote good behaviour towards machines, kindness towards humans will follow. Robots should have rights like the rest of us.

Others think…

This idea is absurd! Robots cannot think or control their bodies, and it will probably be a long time before they can. They exist to improve the human experience — not vice-versa. We should consider how our actions affect living things, not machines. Saying otherwise suggests that we are putting machines’ needs before our own.

You Decide

  1. Should robots have rights?


  1. Write down three rules for how humans should deal with robots.

Some People Say...

“Humans, animals, plants and robots should all have the same rights.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Made to seem human.
Moral principles that decide how a person behaves.
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another person (or animal, or maybe even robot).
People were given ‘Pleos’ (robots which look like babies). First they were told to interact with them, then to tie them up and beat them.
Ridiculous, crazy.
The other way round.

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