We live in an age of technological advancement. Medical procedures are becoming safer and more sophisticated, life expectancy is going up, and the overall material comfort of life is increasing. With such a lifestyle, there is room for projects, dreams, and innovation. However, it is also a time for questions and a search for balance.
Recently, a humanoid robot produced by Hansen Robotics has become the first one in the world to be granted citizenship. Sophia, whose name means ‘wisdom’ in Greek, was given this honor by Saudi Arabia ahead of the Future Investment Initiative, a summit which, according to the Washington Post “links deep-pocketed Saudis with inventors hoping to shape the future.” Yet this is a country that has yet to grant equal rights to women.
Although Sophia is the same automaton whose program was not developed enough a while back to realize that ‘I will destroy humans’ was not a good phrase to use, it now seems to have an advanced enough AI system to carry out a normal conversation. The issue here, however, is not how advanced the AI is, but rather, where the future of technology will lead in terms of morality and ethics. It is not clear to what the citizenship Sophia was granted will entitle it, but what is clear is that this sets a precedent. Before the conversation about whether or not robots, no matter how advanced, should be granted the same rights as humans could be had, the world already has its first robot citizen.
As if something out of Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man or an episode of Black Mirror the ethical and juridical questions with regard to the future of technology and how it will be linked to human life, start pilling up. If robots become as advanced in reason as humans, would it be ethical to have them work for us without offering them equal rights? Would there be a different type of citizenship for them than the ones humans have? If they develop a conscience, how would treating them as less worthy of rights differ from giving a human second-class citizenship? What about the ethics of human cloning? What about genetically modified children and eradication of ‘imperfect’ genetic predispositions? Who defines ‘perfection’? On what will future morality be based, an absolute truth, a relative one? What are the consequences of a future based on relative moral principles?
If history teaches us anything it is to be careful of the precedents we set and of the moral compass we to which we adhere, as no decision is without consequences. These conversations need to start happening now, everywhere. Scientists, jurists, ethicists, and artists need to work together and anticipate all manner of future scenarios so that we may not go unprepared into a future which is already unraveling in front of us. Europe must not be caught off guard by such developments, and neither must the rest of the world. If we are to prosper, or at least keep an acceptable level of comfort in the future, we must be prepared to tackle serious and new ethical questions.