- - Sunday, July 26, 2015

The season of the Theater of the Absurd continues. After the Supreme Court twisted the clear meaning of plain English words to save Obamacare and bless same-sex marriage, after Iran hoodwinked Barack Obama into preserving and expanding its nuclear program, after Bruce Jenner remade himself (herself? itself?) into a buxom synthetic female, no one should be surprised when R2D2 wakes up to demand his civil rights, too. This might not be what Mr. Obama had in mind, but a conscientious radical accepts everything new, bad or not.

If self-awareness is the essence of what it means to be human, and humans merit rights, machines may soon be ready to claim their birthright (assembly-right?). Computer scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., have taught humanoid robots to recognize themselves as distinct from others. Taking a group of three robots, researchers administered a “dumbing pill” program to two of them, which told them they were unable to speak. When the group was asked which one could still speak, the third robot spoke up, recognized its own voice and announced that it was the one. It’s not exactly Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” but for a robot, it’s not bad.

Robo-ethics, the morality of how robots are designed and tasked, is challenging scientists and engineers to ponder the possibility — some say the inevitability — of artificial intelligence advancing far beyond simple self-awareness, to outsmart the creators. Once they comprehend the concept of personhood, robots could grasp the idea that society is obligated to grant them rights, similar to the human rights described in the Declaration of Independence, such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But will a happy robot be a good robot?

An ethicist says that now is the time to ponder the enigmatic questions of cyber law: “Robotic systems accomplish tasks in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance; and robots increasingly blur the line between person and instrument,” says Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law. If, in the future, a demonstrably sentient machine claims the right that humans have to procreate, or build copies of itself, who can say nay? When the multiplying machines petition for the right of representation in governance, men and women born of nature will face an ethical dilemma. “Which right do we take away from this sentient entity, then,” Professor Calo asks, “the fundamental right to copy, or the deep, democratic right to participate?”

Bringing down the curtain on this season of the Theater of the Absurd, by ordaining that rights are reserved for flesh-and-blood humans, may not be that simple. As replacing human hips and knees has become routine medicine in the 21st century, so might integration of bionic body parts to remedy the ravages of injury or disease in coming decades. Should society draw the line between man and machine when cyborgs — part living, part mechanical — show up at the courthouse to register to vote? The befuddlement that accompanied the use of the “one-drop rule” in determining the race of Americans of mixed ancestry in years past, would be minor by comparison.

If robot rights seem a stretch, animal rights sound equally silly, but one nonhuman creature has won rudimentary human rights. In 2014, an orangutan in Argentina named Sandra was granted legal personhood through the imagination of the lawyers. A court ordered Sandra released from prison (a zoo, actually) on the grounds that as an intelligent, nonhuman primate, she is entitled to the freedom to live in a sanctuary rather than in a cage.

Believing that artificial intelligence will soon render robots to be humans of a different kind, one socially insensitive wag has taken up their cause with a slogan: “Robot lives matter.” Don’t laugh.

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