Defining Personhood in the Age of AI

Woman with web of networks representing AI

In the field of artificial intelligence (AI), we are nearing a critical juncture that has previously only existed in science fiction stories. As robotics and machine learning become more and more advanced, AI developers find themselves contemplating at which point AI beings should be granted autonomous personhood.

Films, novels, and TV shows are reflective of society’s collective fascination — and general unease — with the future of AI. The popular HBO show “Westworld,” for example, poses questions of ethics through the depiction of a morally ambiguous world in which robotic humanoids are subjugated and abused for the whims of tourists. On the other end of the spectrum, films franchises such as “The Matrix” and “The Terminator” depict hellish landscapes where robot overlords wield their superiority over humans to enslave them or push them to the brink of extinction.

Although wildly entertaining, these fictional examples also represent some of the deep, probing questions that tend to emerge in any AI-personhood debate, specifically:

  • What, if any, rights should AI robots be granted?
  • Is it ethical to deny AI robots personhood?
  • Will granting AI personhood be problematic for the future of humanity?

Many Shades of Gray: Non-Human Personhood

The concept of personhood is a philosophical can of worms, touching upon a range of heavy-hitting topics such as equality, citizenship, and human rights. Defining it within a legal context has been historically controversial, especially where non-humans are concerned. However, there are a few examples of non-human entities that have already been granted some form of personhood:

  • In the United States, non-human entities such as corporations are often granted a variety of essential human rights, such as the ability to enter into contracts with other individuals and entities, freedom of speech and religion, and the ability to submit taxes as a single entity.
  • Many animal rights activists argue that highly intelligent non-human animals such as whales, great apes, and elephants should be granted legal personhood. Several countries — including Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, and India — have amended their constitutions in order to provide protection for certain species.
  • There are even some environmental entities, such as forests and rivers, that have been given legal identities, rights, and personhood statuses.

Electronic Persons

In 2016, the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs proposed that sophisticated autonomous robots should be declared “electronic persons,” affording them both rights and obligations. This would mean that robots, as opposed to their manufacturers, would be held accountable for making critical errors or going rogue. The proposal made no mention of granting essential human rights, such as the right to vote.

In response, many artificial intelligence experts in the robotics, law, and ethics fields came forward in an open letter to publicly condemn the proposal, saying that current robots were not advanced enough to be granted personhood in any form. So what would AI beings have to look like in order to be granted personhood status?

The criteria for artificial general intelligence (AGI), which refers to machine intelligence that is equal to human intelligence within a reasonable approximation, involves the integrated ability to plan, solve puzzles, use reason, represent knowledge, learn, and communicate. Ideally, AI of this kind would be able to pass the Turing test, which is designed to assess a machine’s ability to exhibit human-like intelligence and behavior.

So, while Alexa and Siri may seem ultra-intuitive and powerful, they still require specific inputs, and can only provide certain types of outputs in response. They can learn a user’s preferences, interests, and habits, and use this knowledge to create a better experience, but are still confined within the parameters of their algorithms and cannot truly evolve past their programming.

Meet Sophia, the First Robotic Citizen

In spite of the general consensus that AI beings are not yet sophisticated enough to warrant personhood status, Saudi Arabia controversially awarded citizenship to an AI robot, named Sophia, in 2017 — the first artificially intelligent machine to become a citizen.

Created by robotics developer David Hanson, Sophia uses machine learning, face recognition, natural language processing, and animated robotics when interacting with humans. However, it’s Hanson’s handiwork that really imbues Sophia with a sense of charisma and personality. Formerly a robotics artist for Disney and other production studios, Hanson is no stranger to creating electromechanical beauty.

Once Sophia was introduced to the world, the media was completely enthralled. The machine was featured on the cover of Elle magazine and was invited on a variety of talk shows, including “The Tonight Show.” There, she teased Jimmy Fallon about his hosting abilities, beat him in a game of rock-paper-scissors, and even joked about taking over humanity.

As impressive as Sophia is, some industry leaders, including Facebook’s VP and chief AI scientist Yann LeCun, are wary of viewing Sophia as anything more than a high-tech parlor trick. While some conversations with Sophia do seem fairly natural, there are many other instances of fractured, stilted phrasing and awkward conversing.

As with Alexa and Siri, it appears that Sophia has yet to evolve past its programming. And yet, this machine has more rights than some Saudi Arabian citizens.

Beyond Sophia

According to a survey distributed and analyzed by Oxford machine intelligence researcher Katja Grace, experts throughout the AI field believe that intelligent robots will be outperforming humans in a variety of uniquely human tasks as early as 2024. At that point, discussions surrounding personhood status will become more serious and specific.

With advanced AI on the horizon, developers have started to reflect on the various factors that need to be considered before deciding whether these machines should be granted personhood status. While it can be argued that it’s simply unethical to deny personhood status to a self-aware entity capable of complex thought, many experts have serious concerns about what that could mean for biological humans.

It’s impossible at this time to predict how AI robots will look and act in the future. Right now, AI is generally used as a smart tool for completing complex tasks or carrying out novel activities such as playing chess, and their behavior is easy enough to predict. However, once AI beings achieve true AGI, their behavior could evolve far beyond their intended scope, making them difficult, if not impossible, to predict and control.

Although some companies and organizations, including Google, believe strongly in AI’s ability to positively impact the world, there is no guarantee that AI beings would evolve with the same sense of human morals and ethics. And even if they did, their ethics would be evolving from their original programming, which means that algorithms designed with nefarious intentions could skew an AI being’s alignment from the very beginning.

The Ultimate Disruptive Technology

Rather than improving everyday life, autonomous AI could instead upend the entire social order — in a negative way. AI beings’ superior skills, combined with personhood status, would likely give them the upper hand against humans in many ways, from work to property ownership to wealth.

Many jobs have already been changed or made obsolete through the use of AI and other advanced technologies, though the research does indicate that AI beings currently stimulate job growth rather than stunt it. However, if AI beings end up developing human-like thought, creativity, and emotional nuance, it’s possible that they could start taking jobs that normally require distinctly human capabilities. In certain professions, such as those within the surgery field, highly precise AI automaton may even prove safer, quicker, and more efficient than human work.

Autonomous AI beings could also gain power by owning properties and corporations. And because these beings are technically immortal, there would be no end to the amount of wealth they could amass through any of their assets. Ultimately, this could create a massive socioeconomic chasm between humans and machines.

From Computerized Thing to Digital Being: The Takeaway

The concept of consciousness and personhood has been debated by philosophers and scientists since ancient times. Although we’re not yet at the point where we have to worry about robot takeovers, AI beings are becoming more sophisticated and advanced every day. Eventually, they will surpass their original programming, and may even surpass human capabilities and complexities. To ensure humans are prepared for the future, whatever it may be, it’s critical that these discussions and debates continue in earnest.


Image Credit: metamorworks/

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