Robots are more than just science fiction. Thanks to Moore’s Law, computing and robotic technology is coming closer and closer to full integration in our everyday lives. But as researchers race to create robots capable of assisting and working alongside human beings, some ethicists are concerned about how robotic protection laws should be structured.
After all, humans have a pretty lousy track record so far. In the late summer of 2015, a droid called HitchBOT, who had successfully taken road trips through Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada, was found decapitated in a dirty ally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Yes, you read that correctly: some hoodlums accosted HitchBOT late at night, sawed his head off and ripped apart his limbs. The body wasn’t found until morning.
“It was quite a setback, and we didn’t really expect it,” Frauke Zeller, one the researchers who designed and built HitchBOT, told CNN. “We were spoiled by the kindness of other people who had looked after HitchBOT.”
This is just one of many stories that concerns ethicist Yueh-HsuanWeng, a research associate who co-founded the ROBOLAW.ASIA Initiative at Peking University.
“My main argument is that the current laws do not help human beings to project their empathy while interacting with humanoid robots,” Wengemailed Tech Insider. To help ensure laws keep up to date with advances in robot technology, Weng is advocating for a special legal status he calls the “Third Existence.”
This “Third Existence” is best explained through a simple analogy. As Tech Insider puts it:
“…if someone were to walk up to your pet and injure it, the person responsible can be found legally liable for the damage he or she has caused. [Weng’s] argument is that this kind of accountability helps ensure humans display a certain amount of empathy when interacting with animals. [His] Third Existence looks to put the same concept in place, except for intelligent robots instead of pets.”
Is there really a need for such laws to be in place? After all, couldn’t the current generation of robots be covered for damages as personal property? Would any action, other than asking for some unusual legal advice, need to be undertaken?Weng believes some recent events highlight the need for extra protections—especially considering the possibility that these machines will one day possess high levels of intelligence and sentience.
One humanoid robot has already been the victim of abuse. While performing its function as a greeter at a Softbank Corp. store in Japan, a robot named “Pepper” was assaulted by an angry, intoxicated customer.
According to Tech Xplore:
“…the man said he was angry at the attitude of one of the store clerks. The ‘Pepper robot’ now moves more slowly, and its internal computer system may have been damaged.Under current Japanese law, the man can be charged with damage to property, but not injury, since injury is a charge reserved for humans.”
“When I heard about this footage,” Weng wrote,“my reaction was not surprise at all as incidents like this one have occurred before.During the 19th century, steam powered locomotives were deemed ‘monsters’ and therefore inappropriately treated in Shanghai and Yokohama when they were initially introduced to the Asian society.”