Robot in handcuffs

Book review: ‘Robot Rights’ by David J Gunkel

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Machines are taking on ever greater levels of responsibility. Should they be given the same rights their human counterparts would enjoy?

“Whether we recognise it as such or not, we are in the midst of a robot invasion.”

David Gunkel certainly can’t be accused of underselling the timeliness of his latest book, launching straight in with a claim that robots aren’t just coming for our jobs, but are insinuating themselves into virtually every aspect of our lives.

As ‘Robot Rights’ (The MIT Press, £27.00, ISBN 9780262038621) rapidly establishes, however, what we’re experiencing at this point in the 21st century isn’t the swarms of hostile androids portrayed in decades of science-fiction stories, but a more subtle takeover in which humans are willingly handing over control of many aspects of their lives to machines. It’s a question of relinquishing responsibility where there’s a belief that technology can save us time, never mind being able to do the job more efficiently.

With great power, of course, comes great responsibility. Gunkel’s starting point in this thought-provoking book, and the strand that runs through it, is to ask readers whether it’s inevitable that giving ‘robots’ that level of responsibility means we’re somehow morally obliged to give them the equivalent rights a human would enjoy in the same situation.

While engineers have pondered this for some time now, it’s a question being pushed into the mainstream by an uptake of innovations like self-driving cars. And if it’s hard enough to weigh up whether a humanoid robot should be held accountable for its actions, how much more difficult is it to resolve when we’re talking about an artificial intelligence that’s determining actions of a fast-moving vehicle as it interacts with human drivers and pedestrians? Does the buck stop with the owner, the person who coded the software and decided how it would prioritise its decisions, the manufacturer who sold it, or even – let’s say – the car itself?

This is an intentionally provocative attempt to prompt a debate that needs to be had, and to involve users as well as industry. Inevitably, there are some heavyweight philosophical concepts involved, but that’s no bad thing when the engineers who should be thinking about such issues are happy all too often to dismiss them with an assumption that they can be resolved by society and stakeholders.

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