Rights For Robots?

In today’s Physorg.com newsletter (which I recommend again to you all), we find a link to the following story:

Incident of drunk man kicking humanoid robot raises legal questions

We read:

A few weeks ago, a drunk man in Japan was arrested for kicking a humanoid robot that was stationed as a greeter at a SoftBank, Corp., store, which develops the robots. According to the police report, the man said he was angry at the attitude of one of the store clerks. The “Pepper robot” now moves more slowly, and its internal computer system may have been damaged.

Under current Japanese law, the man can be charged with damage to property, but not injury, since injury is a charge reserved for humans. Dr. Yueh-Hsuan Weng, who is cofounder of the ROBOLAW.ASIA Initiative at Peking University in China, and former researcher of the Humanoid Robotics Institute at Waseda University in Japan, thinks a better charge lies somewhere in between.

This is, in my opinion, deeply confused, and is an artifact of the novelty, in our evolutionary context, of biological, and especially humanoid, simulacra. The point has been made again and again (see, for example, here, and perhaps most effectively of all, here).

My argument is simple:

1) “Injury”, as opposed to mere “damage”, implies suffering.

2) Suffering requires consciousness.

3) Robots, for now at least, are not conscious.

4) Robots cannot suffer.


5) Robots cannot be “injured”.


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  1. JK says

    You may Malcolm, recall my sending you this link awhile back?


    I think since the Argentinian-Orangutan of German-Indonesian extraction got [his/her … I’m not familiar enough with Argentinian naming customs so don’t know whether “Sandra” could be either/or so, in order not to offend] Rights declared there has since been a decision similar somewhere here in the US.

    I certainly see no problems declaring Rights to robots. Why, I see it as plainly a natural progression.

    Heck it was only recognized about a decade ago that US politicians could evolve. And they’ve been evolving at a faster and faster clip since.

    Posted October 3, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  2. How will we know if a robot has consciousness?

    I have direct experience of my own consciousness, and I simply assume everyone else has consciousness, but I don’t know how I’d prove this.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted October 3, 2015 at 5:54 pm | Permalink
  3. HJH,

    I guess one can only know absolutely about one’s own consciousness. But if we replace Malcolm’s “consciousness” in (2) with “a nervous system” then it is possible to prove that robots don’t have one. And we do know that “suffering” or pain requires a non-sedated nervous system.

    Posted October 3, 2015 at 7:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    That’s the $64,000 question.

    Posted October 3, 2015 at 10:34 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Henry, forgive me for splitting hairs, but we don’t know that consciousness (and therefore suffering), requires a nervous system. All we can say is that the only examples we have of it do involve a certain kind, and configuration, of biological tissue. But we have no idea whatsoever what it is that makes such biological systems conscious. Perhaps other kinds of systems, built on wholly different substrates, can do the trick as well. (I doubt it, but we just don’t know.)

    Posted October 3, 2015 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm,

    We do know that feeling pain, which I am conflating with suffering, requires a nervous system that has not been sedated or anesthetized, which presupposes the presence of a nervous system.

    Posted October 4, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  7. I think the philosophical problem we have here is that we wrongly assign the characteristic of certainty to the word know. But, as quantum mechanics asserts, and QM has never been disproved, anything is possible — except certainty!

    Posted October 4, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Ah, but that’s the thing, Henry: we don’t know that there aren’t other ways of constructing a conscious system that can experience qualia such as pain. All we know is that a biological nervous system is one way to do it, and the only way we’ve seen so far. But “functionalists“, for example, believe that conscious systems are conscious in virtue of their logical organization alone. (I think they’re probably wrong, but that’s just my opinion.)

    Posted October 4, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  9. I surrender.

    I suggest we file this discussion under the label:

    “If God is omnipotent, can He create something that He subsequently can not destroy?”

    Posted October 4, 2015 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    I’ll say that the mystery of consciousness may be a stone too heavy for us to lift.

    Posted October 4, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  11. I don’t know about that. My sense is that consciousness is yet another in a series of emergent phenomena, albeit a seemingly intractable one for now …

    Posted October 4, 2015 at 1:17 pm | Permalink