Robot Citizenship: Why Our Artificial Assistants May One Day Need Passports

SingularityNET is working with the government.

The year is 2030. You’ve just received an email: The dream job in Japan is yours. You start making phone calls, looking up the rent on Tokyo apartments, and getting ready to make the career move of a lifetime. There’s just one problem: Can your Siri get a visa?

It’s a potential roadblock that’s less farfetched than you’d think. In November 2018, Maltese government minister Silvio Schembri announced an initiative to grapple with questions like how many robots to let into the country at one time and more. is aimed at making Malta one of the top 10 countries in the world when it comes to readiness for advanced A.I.. One of its first tasks is to explore, along with SingularityNET, how to institute a kind of citizenship test for robots. SingularityNET CEO Ben Goertzel elaborated on the idea a few three days after the announcement in a blog post. His goal is to make sure that, as robots and A.I. continue to become more sophisticated and autonomous, they will still know how to follow and respect the laws of the land.

“I know what it means to be a citizen of the U.S. or Europe,” Goertzel tells Inverse. “If you’re a naturalized citizen of the U.S., you take a simple test on constitution and government and so forth. That’s what I was thinking, what tests can be given to an A.I., or robot controlled by an A.I., to make it reasonable to consider making that A.I. a citizen.”

Does Siri need citizenship?

Unsplash / Fikri Rasyid

Why Futuristic Siris May Need a Passport

The initiative strikes to the heart of humanity’s relationship with machines. Laws are designed to accommodate humans and organizations, the only ones capable of taking responsibility. But as our computers move from dumb servants to sophisticated setups capable of passing the Turing test, legislators worldwide will need to consider how these pseudo-people function in legal systems designed for yesteryear. Benoît Hamon made taxing robots a key plank of his run for the French presidency in 2017, and Andrew Yang is running for the American presidency on a “basic income” platform to offset the job losses from automation. The European Parliament has called for ethical standards to guide the development of such machines and, in the United States, the billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has called for a robot tax as well.

"““Artificial Intelligence is being seen in many quarters as the most transformative technology since the invention of electricity."

But as the line between simple tool and thinking-entity continues to blur, the legal designations separating life and artificiality will have to evolve.

In Goertzel’s opinion, this means developing an A.I. that can understand the laws of a country, correctly answer questions about said laws, and apply those regulations to real-life situations. However, he readily admits that the task force will have to refine these ideas — and it may need to work through them fast.

“Artificial Intelligence is being seen in many quarters as the most transformative technology since the invention of electricity,” Francois Piccione, policy advisor for the Maltese government, tells Inverse. “To realize that such a revolution is taking place and not do one’s best to prepare for it would be irresponsible.”

Issues surrounding liability are already starting to emerge with autonomous cars. Current systems request users remain alert at all times, but once a computer can take full control, it raises a number of questions.

“Autonomy, inevitably, raises questions about responsibility and liability,” Piccione says. “To illustrate the point, if a driverless car causes an accident, who or what is liable? It could be the manufacturer, or the user of the system, or other intermediaries. But liability could also be attributed directly and solely to the robot or system itself.”

Maltese robots would not even be the first to gain citizenship. Sophia, the humanoid robot powered by SingularityNET, was granted honorary citizenship by Saudi Arabia in October 2017. The stunt was supposed to spark a conversation about robots in society. Instead, press attention focused on how Sophia seemed to enjoy more rights in Saudi Arabia than actual human women, as she didn’t need a male guardian in public.

Sophia the robot.


Which of course raises an even more complex question: In a world where human rights are far from a settled issue, it seems somewhat tone-deaf to begin discussing robot privileges for machines that haven’t even been invented yet. But Goertzel has stood by the initiative as “a genuinely forward-thinking and positive act on the part of the Saudi government.”

A Marketing Play?

Other experts in the field remain unconvinced. David Gunkel, a Northern Illinois University professor whose book Robot Rights considers the ethics of granting such benefits to machines, tells Inverse that Sophia’s citizenship was “mainly about marketing,” aimed at attracting the tech industry to the country’s Future Investment Summit. After all, it was only an honorary citizenship, basically akin to an honorary university degree.

“I have yet to see a well-reasoned and/or persuasive argument for granting A.I. or robots citizenship,” Gunkel says. “I do see good reasons to consider questions of legal personality for A.I.s and robots, but that is an entirely different set of questions.”

The problem of Siri’s citizenship, then, actually encompasses two distinct debates. The first concerns what happens when an A.I. does something wrong, a debate already occurring around autonomous cars. But the second is much more complicated: Siri and others command respect to the point where society starts to consider granting such rights as “just.”

“Neither of these questions require that A.I./robots be citizens,” Gunkel says. “In fact, we have already addressed and answered these question for another class of artificial entity — the multinational corporation. Corporations are legal persons for the purpose of making them subjects of and subject to national and international law. This has and can done without granting the corporation citizenship.”

Goertzel, however, suggests that even corporate personhood has its issues. What if a decentralized autonomous organization, for example a cryptocurrency, wants to register itself as a corporation? Does it need a human to finish the task?

“The focus is on how to provide certification in Malta to these systems, which would also include limited rights and obligations,” Piccione says. “Taking this route would not, in fact, be a new concept as today companies and other registered entities carry liability but also have rights, for example to own property. This could be the same mechanism used for ‘robots’ or other A.I. systems including autonomous vehicles.”

Will the autonomous car need a passport?

Flickr / jurvetson

Should Citizenship Imply Non-Legal Rights, Too?

Corporate personhood can only answer so many questions. Gunkel says that we are living in a “robot invasion” where machines “are now everywhere and doing virtually everything.” As they move from simple tools to an actor in society, consigning them to the status of human-run entities seems ill-fitting.

“I believe we will need consider — and in fact have already begun considering — the question of moral and legal personhood for A.I. and robots apart from issue having to do with citizenship,” Gunkel says. “And what is perhaps worse, I worry that speculation about ‘robot citizenship’ might eclipse the more immediate questions regarding the moral and legal standing of A.I./robots.”

Goertzel predicts that a human-level artificial intelligence could emerge as early as 2029. If that prediction holds true, it means something halfway human-like could launch as soon as 2025. That only leaves around six years before legislators will have to consider how to to treat entities with close to a regular citizen’s intelligence.

Whether the answer is citizenship itself, however, is less clear, but one thing’s for certain: The line between man and machine is about to look a lot blurrier. Films like Her and Ex Machina explore the interplay between human-seeming systems and the resultant relationship. Even if we solve all of Siri’s visa issues, the boundaries may still remain unsettled in more ways than just the legal question.

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