We have human rights and animal rights. Should there be computer rights?
Interesting question. Let ‘s first consider the rights of nonhuman beings, before going into the case of computers.
Animal rights ‘ main goal is to prevent cruelty. In many religions, animals are considered sentient beings. The Shariah as well as religious laws from Indhuists, Buddhists and most Christians states since 18th century offers some form of protection for animals. Apart from protection, another legal situation arises when the plaintif is a human and an animal has to go on trial. During the middle ages in Europe, animals were subject to trials and judgement. There are many documented cases of pigs or cows that were condemned for hurting humans after being audited during a trial [1 ].
Most orignal sources we have of these trials were compiled by writers from 19th century willing to show the absurdity of medieval laws. For them, human rights could exist as opposed to animals, as they refuse to recognise first that some animals possess moral agency [2 ] in a rational world under human monopoly.
Back to the original question : should computers have rights? Computers are usually considered tools. Therefore their owner is liable for any incidents or possible legal outcomes related to its actions. The problems arise when, with some degree of self-determination, a computer perform a task without having being directly ordered to do so.
Here, the famous case of the monkey selfie dispute [3 ] provides a good precedent. The photographer claims ownership of the pic because he did setup cameras around macaques while the animal rights defendants claim that the creator is the monkey itself, a “non-legal “ person, and the pic should therefore be in public domain.
To reframe our question a bit, we could ask : could computers be recognised as legal entities? There are already many non-human legal entities, such as companies, state institutions or even rivers [4 ]. In US law, corporations are legal persons with limited legal rights. Their shareholders ‘ liability is generally limited to their investment. To recognise computers as legal entities may require a similar approach, which raise multiple questions : what are computers rights and obligations? What are their legal relationships with their programmers or manufacturers? How are cases settled?
One of the main problem here is that we don ‘t have a proper legal infrastructure (court, jurisprudence, etc) to assess possible cases that may arise by the actions of computers, algorithms, robots, etc. In common discourse, private algorithms are often considered as “black boxes “ i.e. impossible to decipher and therefore evaluate. Recently, researchers have raised against this “fallacy of inscrutability “ [5 ] of computers and argued that we may not need to understand all the inner workings of a machine or computer to evaluate its actions. We can rely on a legality of its outcomes to judge it. After all, a human killer is a black box as well as there are no way to know its motives for sure.
” we have many ways to evaluate an algorithm after its outcomes. We can know it in depth and make many reliable predictions just by analyzing its outputs. This is not free, it comes at an additional cost to developing the algorithm itself, but it does not require to understand how it works, how it thinks. “ [6 ]
For this to happen, we need to recognise first that computers have some form of agency of their own, which opens a whole new world of questions in the domain of computer ethics. Fortunately, this is not a new field of research. The venerable Norbert Wiener himself has an entire book [7 ] on the topic.
Beyond computers, this question of responsibility could be extended to all non-humans, and therefore benefit for the large body of reflection leads by ecologists in the fight against pollution and climate change. The idea of law itself has evolved with millenaries of writing systems to consider new entities, living beings and abstractions. Enforcement as well has transformed radically. The People Republic of China has turn digital technologies into a core social and political infrastructure, and is experimenting with new forms of prescriptive computer regulations [8 ]. The Chinese “social credit system” shows how a legal system originally designed for industrial pollution can be extended to other domains such as financial and civil regulation.
Another recent example is the crypto economy that has defined a mission of rebuilding a new financial system for our planet. The whole space has been crippled by scams and ripoffs of all kinds with virtually no way to settle disputes. What the crypto enthusiasts have been learning in the process is that central banks of nation states does not exist without the other functions of political power : political organisation, justice, enforcement and ultimately taxes to fund it all. To build a functioning human system requires some form of agreement and justice - a legal system - and proper ways to enforce (legal) decisions.
The judicial system itself is often represented by a blind lady - a “trustless “ figure - serving the law. Ultimately, justice and politics are two sides of the same coin that allow human organisations to function. While the material forms of crypto trials still to be defined, defining proper mechanisms for conflict resolutions seems the most important step for them to develop into viable global institutions.
This text was originally published in quora.