Chris Van Es

Rights for Robots?

If machines can and do become conscious, will we take their feelings into account? The development of a conscious robot that (who?) was not widely perceived to have moral standing and interests worthy of consideration could lead to mistreatment on a large scale.

PRINCETON and WARSAW – Last month, Gecko Systems announced that it had been running trials of its “fully autonomous personal companion home care robot,” also known as a “carebot,” designed to help elderly or disabled people to live independently. A woman with short-term memory loss broke into a big smile, the company reported, when the robot asked her, “Would you like a bowl of ice cream?” The woman answered “yes,” and presumably the robot did the rest.

Robots already perform many functions, from making cars to defusing bombs – or, more menacingly, firing missiles. Children and adults play with toy robots, while vacuum-cleaning robots are sucking up dirt in a growing number of homes and – as evidenced by YouTube videos – entertaining cats. There is even a Robot World Cup, though, judging by the standard of the event held in Graz, Austria, last summer, footballers have no need to feel threatened just yet. (Chess, of course, is a different matter.)

Most of the robots being developed for home use are functional in design – Gecko System’s home-care robot looks rather like the Star Wars robot R2-D2. Honda and Sony are designing robots that look more like the same movie’s “android” C-3PO. There are already some robots, though, with soft, flexible bodies, human-like faces and expressions, and a large repertoire of movement. Hanson Robotics has a demonstration model called Albert, whose face bears a striking resemblance to that of Albert Einstein.

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