Will Your Machine Have Rights?

ElmoIn the February issue of Wired magazine, Daniel Roth describes the discomfort of watching an incineration of Tickle Me Elmo. He goes on to wonder about the future of machine rights. I wonder too. As machines get better at mimicking human behavior; as they appear to have personalities and interact with us by voice instead of mouse and keyboard, what’s to say some disenfranchised group of loonies won’t decide that machines have rights too.

I don’t buy it! Of course I’m not one of those people who gives people names to his cars or any of that stuff either. A machine is a tool intended to make my life easier in some way or another, even if that’s just by entertaining me (or keeping my little rug rat entertained while I do something else). I realize this is a rather extreme position, and it could lead to the kind of revolt made famous in I Robot or 2001: A Space Oddysey. Nonetheless, I stick to my guns on this one. Besides, we’ve done such a poor job so far of providing basic rights to our fellow human beings. Let’s get that right before we start worrying about the machines.

OK. I have to admit that I felt a little sympathy for Robin Williams’ character in Bicentenial Man, but that didn’t happen until he had essentially made himself into a truly artificial human. At some point the line does blur. If, as Ray Kurzweil believes, we figure out a way to put our brain pattern into software, will the machine running that software be us? On the other hand, if a person replaces enough of his organs with artificial ones, does he become a machine?

We may have to struggle with ethical dilemmas like this at some point. It isn’t with Ticke Me Elmo.

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