Moral status of robots: why is it important?

status of robots

David Gunkel, an American academic and professor of communication studies at Northern Illinois University, in his book “Robot Rights” raises the topic of social status and status of robots. He says that in our time robots are in a “gray zone” between things and individuals. But at the same time, it is important to understand that personality is a category of morality and law, which, in fact, is applicable not only to people. After all, legal entities also have rights and obligations, and since robots belong to them, why cannot they claim the same status?

On the other hand, the scientist proposes to reconsider the attitude towards robots not from the point of view of “what exactly we interact with”, but “how we do it”, need consolidate the status of robots. In fact, we always based on the characteristics of the object (consciousness, mind, ability to feel pain) make decisions about how to handle the subject. But should social and moral status depend on certain criteria? Now let’s imagine that a person interacts with people, the environment, animals, robots and even avatars in the Metaverse in his life. Or the robots themselves will create their own robotic Metaverse with a clear status of robots, in which robots will be subjects and objects of the civil law system, will hire each other to work, and perform other actions that are familiar to us.

Isn’t it better to initially pay attention to what the subject really means to us, rather than who or what the subject is? And follow the way we would like to behave, realizing that we are responsible to society? To make it clearer, let’s approach this issue from the other side.

In 2019, German and Dutch scientists conducted a study with which they wanted to understand how humans can empathize with robots.

Participants had to decide if they were willing to sacrifice a single subject to save a group of strangers. Three options: a living person, a humanoid robot, and a robot machine. The results showed that the more a robot looks like a human, the fewer people are willing to sacrifice it for strangers. In more complex scenarios, when the thoughts and perceptions of the robot were described to the participants, they were even willing to sacrifice an injured person in favor of the robot.

A similar experience was organized by researcher Keith Darling of the University of Massachusetts. Participants were given a toy robot dinosaur that responds to human movements. Robots could fondle and show emotions of different colors. For example, to be happy or afraid. After the participants played with them, they were asked to destroy the robots with a hammer or ax. Everyone refused to do it. Only one person decided on such an act, which caused negative emotions among the rest of the participants, including the experimenters themselves.

Both experiments show us that the closer a robot is to a living being, the more empathy people have for it. This means that, to one degree or another, they endow him with moral status. And this fact cannot be ignored, given the pace of development of robotics.

Therefore, although views on the issue of granting moral status to robots are very different, no one denies this possibility with 100% certainty. Every year more and more experts are holding discussions, realizing that humanity will have to resolve this issue. The state, business and society must find a solution before robots become a full-fledged part of them. Otherwise, ethical difficulties will grow in arithmetic progression.

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