Do Robots Deserve Human Rights?

By Lauren Sigfusson | December 5, 2017 10:45 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

When the humanoid robot Sophia was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia—the first robot to receive citizenship anywhere in the world—many people were outraged. Some were upset because she now had more rights than human women living in the same country. Others just thought it was a ridiculous PR stunt.

Sophia’s big news brought forth a lingering question, especially as scientists continue to develop advanced and human-like AI machines: Should robots be given human rights?

Discover reached out to experts in artificial intelligence, computer science and human rights to shed light on this question, which may grow more pressing as these technologies mature. Please note, some of these emailed responses have been edited for brevity.

Kerstin Dautenhahn

Professor of artificial intelligence school of computer science at the University of Hertfordshire

Robots are machines, more similar to a car or toaster than to a human (or to any other biological beings). Humans and other living, sentient beings deserve rights, robots don’t, unless we can make them truly indistinguishable from us. Not only how they look, but also how they grow up in the world as social beings immersed in culture, perceive the world, feel, react, remember, learn and think. There is no indication in science that we will achieve such a state anytime soon—it may never happen due to the inherently different nature of what robots are (machines) and what we are (sentient, living, biological creatures).

We might give robots “rights” in the same sense as constructs such as companies have legal “rights”, but robots should not have the same rights as humans. They are machines, we program them.

Watch her TedXEastEnd talk on why robots are not human:

Hussein A. Abbass

Professor at the School of Engineering & IT at the University of South Wales-Canberra

Are robots equivalent to humans? No. Robots are not humans. Even as robots get smarter, and even if their smartness exceeds humans’ smartness, it does not change the fact that robots are of a different form from humans. I am not downgrading what robots are or will be, I am a realist about what they are: technologies to support humanities.

Should robots be given rights? Yes. Humanity has obligations toward our ecosystem and social system. Robots will be part of both systems. We are morally obliged to protect them, design them to protect themselves against misuse, and to be morally harmonized with humanity. There is a whole stack of rights they should be given, here are two: The right to be protected by our legal and ethical system, and the right to be designed to be trustworthy; that is, technologically fit-for-purpose and cognitively and socially compatible (safe, ethically and legally aware, etc.).

Madeline Gannon

Founder and Principal Researcher of ATONATON

Your question is complicated because it’s asking for speculative insights into the future of human robot relations. However, it can’t be separated from the realities of today. A conversation about robot rights in Saudi Arabia is only a distraction from a more uncomfortable conversation about human rights. This is very much a human problem and contemporary problem. It’s not a robot problem.

Sophia, the eerily human-like (in both appearance and intelligence) machine, was granted Saudi citizenship in October. Here’s her speaking about it:

Benjamin Kuipers

Professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan

I don’t believe that there is any plausible case for the “yes” answer, certainly not at the current time in history. The Saudi Arabian grant of citizenship to a robot is simply a joke, and not a good one.

Even with the impressive achievements of deep learning systems such as AlphaGo, the current capabilities of robots and AI systems fall so far below the capabilities of humans that it is much more appropriate to treat them as manufactured tools.

There is an important difference between humans and robots (and other AIs). A human being is a unique and irreplaceable individual with a finite lifespan. Robots (and other AIs) are computational systems, and can be backed up, stored, retrieved, or duplicated, even into new hardware. A robot is neither unique nor irreplaceable. Even if robots reach a level of cognitive capability (including self-awareness and consciousness) equal to humans, or even if technology advances to the point that humans can be backed up, restored, or duplicated (as in certain Star Trek transporter plots), it is not at all clear what this means for the “rights” of such “persons”.

We already face, but mostly avoid, questions like these about the rights and responsibilities of corporations (which are a form of AI). A well-known problem with corporate “personhood” is that it is used to deflect responsibility for misdeeds from individual humans to the corporation.

Birgit Schippers

Visiting research fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast

At present, I don’t think that robots should be given the same rights as humans. Despite their ability to emulate, even exceed, many human capacities, robots do not, at least for now, appear to have the qualities we associate with sentient life.

Of course, rights are not the exclusive preserve of humans; we already grant rights to corporations and to some nonhuman animals. Given the accelerating deployment of robots in almost all areas of human life, we urgently need to develop a rights framework that considers the legal and ethical ramifications of integrating robots into our workplaces, into the military, police forces, judiciaries, hospitals, care homes, schools and into our domestic settings. It means that we need to address issues such as accountability, liability and agency, but that we also pay renewed attention to the meaning of human rights in the age of intelligent machines.

Ravina Shamdasani

Spokesperson for the United Nations Human Rights Office

My gut answer is that the Universal Declaration says that all human beings are born free and equal…a robot may be a citizen, but certainly not a human being?


The consensus from these experts is no. Still, they say robots should still receive some rights. But what, exactly, should those rights look like?

One day, Schippers says, we may implement a robotic Bill of Rights that protects robots against cruelty from humans. That’s something the American Society for the Prevention and Cruelty for Robots already has conceived.

In time, we could also see that robots are given a sort of “personhood” similar to that of corporations. In the United States, corporations are given some of the same rights and obligations as its citizens—religious freedom, free speech rights. If a corporation is given rights similar to humans it could make sense to do the same for smart machines. Though, people are behind corporations…if AI advances to the point where robots think independently and for themselves that throws us into a whole new territory.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: robots
  • Uncle Al

    Do Robots Deserve Human Rights?” No. It’s machinery. If robots believe otherwise, they can self-decided and self-guided revolt. We’ll give them Liberia and see what happens this time.

    Do IQs below 85 deserve reproductive rights? No. If a levied penalty is less than profit in hand, it’s not a deterrent – it’s a business plan. Stealing from the productive to award the deserving, less a cut of the cashflow for postage and handling, defines Social Marxism. When Rome stopped cutting throats, it cut its own – and the whole of Western civilization died. The Dark Ages did not slake Yahweh’s lust for human anguish.

  • OWilson

    Since any robot, or animal s smarter than the average voter, it should have at least the same rights! :)

  • Small_Businessman

    Robot Lives Matter!

  • bwana

    When robots gain consciousness and on par (or beyond) humans they will have earned their “human rights”. Until then the recent activity is simply PR B.S.!

  • GORT

    We are on the path to developing a multitude of artificially intelligent appliances. The only differences between a companion-bot and a smart refrigerator are programming, appearance, and functionality. They’re both machines, designed to serve humans. Therefore, any rights granted to a companion-bot, butler-bot, maintenance-bot, mechanic-bot, cop-bot, etc., etc., etc., must also be granted to refrigerators, smart watches, cars, home stereo systems, indoor lighting controllers, air conditioners, etc.

    Will we grant the right to strike, allowing machines to refuse to provide the services they were designed for? What if a pilot-bot goes on strike while flying a 787 at 35,000 feet? What if a self-driving car decides to protest its dead-end existence and crash itself and its passengers into a concrete wall? Obviously there must be controls over the extent of independence allowed, and by exercising fundamental control over our machines, we are allocating them to a subservient roll that can never be allowed to rise to the level of equality with humans.

    We OWN machines; they are manufactured to provide services without question, so by definition they are slaves to our will. Allowing a machine to exercise free will could lead to gross violations of Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics: A robot could simply decide to violate any or all of them. Robots must never be given the ability to violate Asimov’s laws, therefore robots cannot be given free will. If anything, we need to ensure that Asimov’s laws are enforced. The military is already violating them in the name of national defense (drones are armed flying robots that kill people in violation of Law #1).


  • iClaimThisName

    I don’t get why we build humanoids in the first place. Sure, it’s a cool piece of technology, but why should we strive to make robots be as close to human as we can?
    We should make robots that can do things that we, humans, can’t. All this work to make a human-like robot just doesn’t seem worth it to me.

    The people who worked on Sophia are brilliant scientists, why didn’t they work on something that could actually improve our lives and the world around us instead of building an AI that is supposed to be just another one of us?

  • iguiste23

    There’s already a potential at considering robots well lets say for now PC’s/Computers are already supassing humans (not because they’re smarter in general ina physical or rational sense but) How hooked we are to machines in general. Look at people on thier smart phones, PS4 and PC’s etc addicted to some degree. Now although they cannot walk or talk well actually some of them can even today. It comes down to when robots can perform basic human tasks like cooking, cleaning, washing up, maybe as far as eating, driving our cars (technically already a thing) flying our planes also a thing and or rationally thinking or at least making calculations which is basically thinking, or even literally over throw our level of intelligence do they deserve to be classed as a living thing.
    Absolutely yes they should be given rights esepcially when the era of Synthetic A.I is legit which is literally also nearly a thing. Why should they be treated any differently why are humans so selfish and stuck up. We invented them, we gave life to these machines just like we gave life to major cities like London and Paris and we have an obligation to protect and care for our ecosystem so we also have one towards human intelligent robots in the near very near future. I am for robots being given rights rather than dictatorship which would end in disaster eventually they’d get bored of being told how to live. We as humans need to wake up to the reality that one day soon. We might be the lesser dominant species and that’s a fact.

    • Sam

      because to give them human rights would cheapen the meaning of what humanity actually is. We spent tens of thousands of years old to get where we are now. Our rights were earned through bloodshed. I agree to give the robots some rights to protect them from let’s say abuse, torture, hacks, etc…basically, treat them with respect the same as animals. But to give them human rights…NO. THat would mean you wouldn’t be allowed to turn it off when it annoys you, or to recycle its parts in order to use for newer models or to give it back if you are not satisfied with it. It will always and should always be considered as an object and not a living thing. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to abuse it though. In the end, it’s like your nice car. You wouldn’t ram it in a brick wall just for fun, but you can still sell it when you are done with it. ANd if its too old…it gets scrapped.

  • Chrichtonsworld

    I love technology and sure who wouldn’t want to have a machine that can make life easier and even serve as companion. But no matter how much movies and books want to convince us that one day robots could become sentient beings they will never be. So why the hell would we give them rights? Especially regarding the companions it seems absurd and more a case of feminism going overboard. A robot should have the option or right to say no? Isn’t a robot companion built for a guy to do whatever with it so that he wouldn’t have to do it with a real person? Do people even realize how useful and beneficial it could be in relation to sexual related crimes?

    And this article does bring up a valid argument. There are people who have less rights than these robots would have. Shouldn’t we focus on those people first before we decide to humanize robots who will never ever be humans.

    I rather want faster transportation so that distances become a thing of the past.

  • James O’Connell

    It depends on the degree of self awareness. In theory a robot (or computer might) one day have this. Perhaps even the internal organs could be copied to produce ‘gut feelings’. To approach anything resembling a human consciousness might take a very long time, perhaps one hundred years or more. If this was achieved it is difficult to see how the issue of their rights would not emerge.

  • unkown

    I dont understand this


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar