Do Robots Deserve Human Rights?


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.

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.