Will robots become electronic persons?

In the system in which we live one of the main aspects of the legislation is private ownership. Although it may verify from country to country there are some main aspects that are legal everywhere: humans (as long as they passed a certain age and are not excluded from basic rights) are allowed to personally own companies, capital and machines, and they are allowed to let other people work for them. This capitalist principle is fully in power in nearly every country on the globe.

But not only human persons can own companies, capital and machines and are allowed to employ people but also companies, states and NGOs (who

Robots and Artificial Intelligence should also have a legal status including rights and duties.

have the status of juridical person). Off course this entities are erected by human to serve a certain purpose, but especially in the case of companies and NGOs, they are not human or simply a conglomerate or group of humans. These entities have a certain purpose and interest; this is not simply the fusion of the interest of its employees or shareholders.


Today most humans see robots, computer algorithms and artificial intelligence as simply tools to support humans, not different from a washing machine. Many humans are frightened that these non-human entities will develop their own interest and that these interests will contradicts with our interest leading to a clash between humans and robots. However, it seems that the path to the singularity will not be as fast as many might think.

Therefore, we will have plenty of time to think about how our society will develop when we extend the use of robots and artificial intelligence. We do not know yet what makes artificial intelligence different from us, if it will have emotions, if it will have compassion and empathy or hidden agendas to turn planets into super-computers. Now we have no special legislation about robots and artificial intelligence yet. Robots are considered machines; artificial intelligence is considered either a machine or intellectual property and are therefore owned by humans, companies or the military. We own them, they are not allowed to own something, not even themselves. If the owner of a machine wants, it to be shutdown it will be transferred into oblivion without an objection or a legal debate. This property relationship was once also in power among different groups of humans, we called it slavery.

Nevertheless until now machines where so far away from achieving a higher consciousness that our attitude towards them should not have lost us a night’s sleep. There was no possibility that a steam engine or an assembly line robot could be sad if they were scrapped or it was possible that they could lead a company. However, today high frequency trading is done only by computer-algorithms that generate billions and billions of dollars every year. The infrastructure of our cities and the airports are in the hands of computer programs that are under the supervision of humans.


However, our current legal and moral approach towards artificial intelligence and robots (especially humanoids) already crossed a border. In a symbolic act, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia gave the humanoid robot Sophia (of Hanson Robotics) citizenship . The European parliament is arguing about the question if robots should be given “electronic” personhood status . But what exactly are the rights of Sophia? Is she allowed to open a Computer-Store in Riad? Is someone allowed own Sophia and sell her to someone else in said Store? Is Sophia allowed to sue a human being in a Saudi-court? These questions are less absurd than they seem.


If Artificial Intelligence needs to pass a test to gain certain rights, will humans also need to pass such a test and will all of them be able to pass?

As the European Parliament, we need to think about the legal aspects of property, personhood, economic- and human rights in relation with robots and artificial intelligence. It is clear that we will need some sort of robot-rights-legislation. In the economic aspect, I think eventually AI will be allowed to own and run a business. Why? Because AI will be more successful to run companies than human CEOs, so tax havens with flexible special business-friendly legislation will open the doors to robot-owned companies. This newly developing economy is an interesting aspect, with which we will deal another time. Nevertheless we need to be aware that with economic power and wealth there comes political power.

Anyway, most robots and most AIs will not be running “Sophia Robotics” but work in assembly lines, drive cars and take care of the elderly. How will we treat them? What rights will they have? Will an AI that creates a software program have property rights to it? Probably not since the software-developers of today also do not have this, as long as a company employs them. However, will the AI be allowed to quit its gob and found an AI led startup? Will the AI be seen as an independent electronic person who is rather having a job than being a slave that is owned by its company?

I think we should develop a robot legislation that does not simply make them human, because they are not, but that creates a new category like electronic personhood. Electronic personhood should know different categories like we do with humans, we know full capable adult humans with all rights and duties, young people, children and people with guardianship that have different rights and protection. We should develop a legislation

Where do we draw the line between humans, cyborgs and androids? Which legal implications will this have?

and practice that not only protects humans from AI and robots but also the other way around. We should not see them only as machines whose only purpose is to serve us, but we should rather strive to form a symbiosis with them and – in long term – to fuse with them. Here is the next problem of the matter. Where do we draw the line between human, cyborg and humanoid robot? A human with a robot arm can be considered a cyborg, because the new robot arm has become an integral aspect of him, but we will probably not classify him as a robot, since he is mostly human. However, what about a human that has a brain chip, which is responsible for more than 50% of his brain activity?


Here we can see that the borders between human and machine will dissolve. We need to have a legislation that is inclusive and does not try to build hermetic walls between the different entities as well as between possible casts among the electronic persons. Although we strongly need to be aware that basic human rights are not valid for billions of humans this should not be an excuse to simply ignore the matter. The way we treat and see other beings effects the way in which we see and treat other humans as well. Until now, every marginalized and enslaved group of people was happy to see that someone was under them, but that is not the way to empower and liberate, that is the way to cement in slavery.

However, it is an urgent issue to end the militarization of robotics and artificial intelligence as we can see it mainly with the USA. The US Army is responsible to create an image in our minds of drones that connects them with surveillance and killing. Here we are clearly playing with fire, if killing and being hostile towards (some) humans is, fix part of the code and self-understanding of an artificial intelligence we have a big problem. The use of artificial intelligence for war and military use should be urgently banned as we did with biological weapons it is playing with the existence of us as a species.

Electronic personhood can mean that certain AIs and robots will have protection against destruction, as well as several human rights. We will also develop certain robot duties. Electronic personhood will need a certain level of self-awareness and compassion for other beings. A test that many humans would not pass. We should not forbid AI and robots in an artificial way with long scripts of code to not kill human beings, this is just provoking them to find a loophole around it. We should try to create a relationship that tries to create a symbiosis between all living and artificial entities.

Author: Johannes Wiener

Focused on social development, Architecture, Art and Nature. Landscape designer currently studying architecture. “We need to develop new ideas for the future of mankind, which focus on living in symbiosis with all life and becoming mature as a species"