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NEXT: What Responsibilities Will We Assign to Machines?

David Staley David Staley NEXT: What Responsibilities Will We Assign to Machines?Photo via ITU Pictures.
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Sophia’s resume is indeed impressive. In addition to appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s show, Sophia has appeared as a cover model in fashion magazines. She is a regular keynote speaker at high-powered conferences on the subject of artificial intelligence. She was named the world’s first United Nations Innovation Champion by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) where she will “promote sustainable development and safeguard human rights and equality.” To learn more about Sophia, go to her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, and look at plenty of images of her on Instagram.

What makes Sophia’s accomplishments all the more impressive is that she is a robot designed by the Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics. As you can see from her Facebook page and Instagram account, her appearance is as life-like and friendly as that of any human. “As an extension of human intelligence,” the company states, “‘Hanson Robotics’ genius machines can evolve to solve world problems too complex for humans to solve themselves. Sophia personifies this bold and responsible goal.” Sophia’s could very well be the future face of artificial intelligence.

Last April, Saudi Arabia granted Sophia citizenship, which occurred at the Future Investment Initiative, an event that linked Saudis with tech investors. Many at the time noted that it was at least ironic that Saudi Arabia would grant citizenship to a female robot in a country where human females have at best second-class status (only recently being given the right to drive automobiles), while others saw it as an example of greater liberalism from the Saudi monarchy (albeit in very small measure).

Others saw this as merely a stunt, for the benefit of the investors at the Future Investment Initiative, but with little other effect once the event concluded. I tend to fall into this category, but while this was probably no more than a publicity stunt, the extension of legal rights to a robot, I believe, is a portend of what is to come.

As an ambassador, are Sophia’s activities merely symbolic?

Appearing on TV and in fashion magazines, having a Facebook page, even making speeches at conferences, while consequential, is not the same thing as making real decisions in the world. What if Sophia or others like her started making decisions and acting on the world? What if she fulfills her promise of “solving world problems too complex for humans to solve themselves?” What if, to take a simple example, while delivering a keynote, Sophia makes a libelous statement? Would someone have recourse to sue her?

As less photogenic forms of automation replace humans at a number of tasks—from self-driving trucks to the automation of the factory floor, to Watson doing our taxes for us—we will reach a stage where artificial intelligence will be making so many decisions that our laws will need to catch up. What responsibilities will we assign to machines? Watson has been employed to examine billions of medical images to help doctors see hitherto unseen patterns in that data that might allow them to make better diagnoses. Will we next call upon Watson to make actual medical decisions? If so, could Watson be sued for malpractice? If a driverless car is in an accident, can it be held at fault? Would I have recourse to sue the driverless car?

If we allow artificial intelligence to more freely move among us either as driverless cars or robotic ambassadors, we will need to develop a new set of laws that describe our relationship to these entities, and to delineate their rights and responsibilities. It will be immediately objected, of course, that artificial intelligence—even if packaged in a human-like body—is not human, and therefore not privileged to have the same legal status as actual humans.

But there is a precedent for so extending rights to non-persons. “Corporations are people,” Mitt Romney famously reminded us. Although made up of people, obviously, a corporation is nevertheless an abstraction, a construct, a legal fiction that has nevertheless been granted legal status as a person, for purposes of purchasing property or safeguarding equal treatment regarding state tax laws. After the Citizens United decision, corporations—these artificial legal persons—have the right to free speech.

Thus, in the same way a corporation is, for legal purposes, a person under US law, an artificially intelligent agent—robot, driverless car, algorithm—could also be defined as a person for legal purposes. Sophia’s Saudi citizenship may be a stunt, but I suspect she will eventually be joined by others of her kind who will be granted such status.

David Staley is interim director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

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