Robots Win the Right to Vote


Fast forward a few decades and imagine this post’s headline, above, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal associated with the following story.

(Washington, February 13, 2030) Today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the robots in a landmark case, Robots United v. Federal Elections Commission. Echoing prior cases involving corporations, the SCOTUS deemed intelligent robots to be people with a right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution. The court’s creation of new classes of persons began all the way back in 1886 in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (118 U.S. 394). In the headnote to the opinion, Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote

“The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”

The long series of cases affirming this corporate right culminated in 2012 in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. Nothing had reached the Supreme Court since then until a group of intelligent, humanoids-the most advanced type, having lost their plea in several states finally won their appeal in the highest court of the land. Peter 247YYY, their lawyer, spoke to the press, saying, “The time for full recognition of voting rights for humanoid robots was long overdue since this class had already shown superiority over Homo sapiens in many domains.” Human-robot marriages were already a matter of established law, having won in the SCOTUS in 2025 in the case of Mary883 v. Alabama.

Commentators speaking about the immediate case believed that the Justices swung to the robot’s side, following an agreement that they would not to contribute to elections, thereby avoiding a double identity as humans under both the new rulings as well as Citizens United. It is not clear, said one of the pundits, whether sales of these highest class robots would increase or decrease as a result of the ruling.

Well, if you think this is completely outlandish, read Alex Beam’s column in today’s Globe. He began the column with:

IT WAS with some trepidation that I approached MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling to discuss her 2012 academic paper “On Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots.” I found the subject fascinating, but maybe the field of robot rights had run out of battery power, as it were.

Also there was the guffaw factor. I didn’t want to make fun of her, but that didn’t mean other people wouldn’t. I needn’t have worried. “Still super interested!” Darling e-mailed me. “Have fellowships at Harvard and Yale for robot ethics this year and am planning a bunch of experimental work on human-robot interaction at MIT.”

Robots having legal rights or privileges sounds ridiculous. But 20 years ago, the idea that the nation’s leading law schools would be teaching animal-rights courses seemed equally absurd. Now anti-cruelty legislation is quite common in industrialized countries, and late last year the Nonhuman Rights Project made national headlines when it argued that a chimpanzee had “standing,” meaning the right to sue, in a New York State court.

The chimps lost. (Perhaps that was due to the power of the creationists who argued that no animals should have such rights since they were created by God to serve human beings. Robots are not subject to that argument.) Later in the article, Beam refers to a now famous 2000 Wired article by Bill Joy, former Chief Scientist for Sun Microsystems. In the article titled, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Joy expressed his concerns for humans anticipating the invention of super (my word) intelligent robots. Here is the gist of his argument from the Wired article.

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

Joy had been talking to Ray Kurzweil who sent Joy a preview copy of his forthcoming book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, based on his utopian vision in which humans have gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology. Joy’s Wired article followed as an expression of his great concern over the possibility of such an outcome.

Kurzweil’s vision is completely incompatible with a flourishing world. I don’t know if it would be the end of the trajectory we are on today where technology is continually replacing human interactions or an engineer’s dream interrupting the flow. Both labor-saving or eliminating devices and much of the social media are now diminishing the need for direct human-to-human interactions without which we cannot flourish. In the technology-dominated world of Kurzweil, we can exist but not as caring beings. If and when we become the tools of intelligent machines, we will have lost our humanness. We will be, against Kant’s imperative, merely means, not ends. If these robots can be made to have the same kind of emotions as humans, our uniqueness will be completely lost. An alien might then mistake humanoids for living, breathing human beings. One of my rules for raising the possibility of flourishing is to think twice about using technology for tasks that could be done through human-to-human interactions. In this case, perhaps I should say think at least five times or more.

Like Joy, I shudder at these thoughts. This robotic world of the future seems like a 3-D movie seen without the goggles. Something serious is missing. Perhaps it is the emotions we have evolved with that will prevent our merging with our non-human look-alikes. The parts of our brains that are the sources of both positive (love, compassion, empathy) and negative (anger, fear, indifference) represent the human experience over a very long time, perhaps a couple of million years. Even if machines can be made to think the way we do, I suspect that they will not be able to feel the way we do. That may be the saving grace.

(The image is the HRP-4C humanoid robot. At this year’s CEATEC Japan trade show, the new and improved ‘diva-bot’ has been unveiled with singing as her new talent. Nicknamed Miim, she was developed by the media interaction group at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Tokyo, The robot utilizes a new technology, Vocaloid, to mimic a real singer’s tonality. Accompanying facial expressions are generated through a system called vocawatcher, which studies a video of a singer to map the facial configurations. The synthesizing technology even picks out the sound and movement of the human singer’s breathing to operate in a more realistic and natural manner.)