It is now more than a generation since the comic science fiction writer John Sladek published his stories about the adventures of Roderick the Robot and envisaged a campaign for rights for robots. But now, in an age when radical democrats plead for us to be citizens rather than consumers (and criticise capitalism for making us too much the latter) and conservatives plead for us to be responsible and self-reliant, the idea that artificial intelligence (AI) might reach the point where robots are entitled to citizens’ rights is actually being seriously debated in academic and even governmental circles. The issue has just been given new force by the controversy over robotics and automation being largely responsible for the loss of blue collar jobs and pressure on wages leading in turn to current political upheavals.
The last point poses a dilemma for humans: as consumers we are happy to snap up the cheap products turned out – not least by Americans and Chinese – with the aid of robots, whilst as citizens we cannot make up our minds whether we want to go all out on robotics for the sake of national and social prosperity (and therefore standing) or whether we want it curbed for employment protection and maybe social stability. That, in addition to the usual pattern that humans do whatever technology makes possible for them to do, suggests we will plunge ahead since we are certain as consumers and merely confused as citizens. But for purposes of AI (and machine consciousness) citizenship itself may be the final test. Stephen Rainey of De Montfort University suggests taking an interest is crucial for citizenship, but would it be possible for a machine to take an interest without being capable of defying its programmers and being willing to do so if it sees fit? That is to say, we might have to decide that robots are entitled to citizens’ rights once they start raising objections to what we tell them to do. Then again, they might attain the dream of active citizenship more fully than humans because they would not need to sleep at night.