Far from being extracts from the extreme end of science fiction, the idea that we may one day give sentient machines the kind of rights traditionally reserved for humans is raised in a British government-commissioned report which claims to be an extensive look into the future.Sure, but so what? We're not 50 years away from conscious robots. We might be 50 years away from robots that seem to all outward appearances to be conscious, but that's not the same thing.
Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.
“If we make conscious robots they would want to have rights and they probably should,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Centre of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
It's not even that consciousness couldn't be artificially created. If, for instance, consciousness is just an emergent property of brains set up and functioning like our own, then there's no reason, in principle, that we couldn't replicate the necessary conditions to give rise to consciousness artificially. That's not the way robots or artificial intelligence work, though. And why should they? It seems pointlessly complicated to try to create a robot that functions mechanically the way we do, since all we're really after in a robot is the functionality of responding in the desired way to stimuli we provide.
In fact, the prospect of artificially inducing consciousness seems like an awfully good incentive not to take the consciousness-inducing strategy with a robot, since then you get into precisely those sorts of thorny ethical issues.