22 April 2024

Robot Rights: Can AI Achieve Personhood? (Video)

Gamma Law


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As AI systems become increasingly sophisticated and exhibit cognition and creativity, a critical question arises: How should generative platforms be categorized from a legal standpoint?
United States Technology
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As AI systems become increasingly sophisticated and exhibit cognition and creativity, a critical question arises: How should generative platforms be categorized from a legal standpoint? Are they mere tools that enable humans to maximize their abilities? Or do they transcend these limitations to the point that their "personalities" should be considered something more akin to sentient beings? How we answer these questions will bear significantly.

Determining the legal standing of natural language models, generative AI, humanoid robots, and other advanced AI entities is a complex challenge that current laws may not be equipped to manage. Traditionally, the law recognizes two categories of "people": natural persons (humans) and legal persons (corporations). Natural persons are protected by human and governmental rights and obligations, while legal persons, such as companies, have been bestowed legal identities separate from their owners and can sue or be sued. AI systems, however, do not fit neatly into either category. They are not natural persons because they lack human traits like consciousness and empathy. But they seem somehow more "real" than word processors, CRM modules, graphic design software, and timekeeping systems corporations use to stay productive and competitive. They make decisions, learn from experiences, and even create original works of art. So, where should they fall along the legal spectrum?

Some legal scholars propose a "third category" for AI systems, recognizing them as entities with a distinct legal status. This new category would acknowledge the unique capabilities of AI, granting them certain rights and obligations without equating them to human beings. "The appropriate type of legal personhood arrangement would depend on the type of entity ...," one professor argues. A humanoid robot "could be granted rights protecting its physical integrity. Its autonomy and self-determination could be protected by various incidents of legal personhood." AI platforms that act in the commercial sphere, playing the stock market, creating art and music, controlling manufacturing processes, etc., "could be protected by various incidents of legal personhood, such as ownership, contracting, and legal standing."

Intellectual Property Implications

This concept could influence future court decisions and laws that have previously held that only humans qualify for intellectual property protection.

Currently, AI systems are considered property, and any intellectual outputs they produce are owned by the corporations or individuals that created, programmed, or prompted them. However, if AIs were legally declared persons, they could claim ownership over their creations and innovations.

This could significantly disrupt the technology and creative industries in particular. If a digital entity could assert copyright over artworks, computer codes, or mechanical schematics it generates, it might be legally entitled to prevent the company that built it from selling reprints, building software, or manufacturing a product based on that output. With that possibility looming, it is not difficult to imagine a world in which Web3 companies restrict the creative capacities of AI systems they control to maintain control over their outputs. However, curtailing AI abilities solely for financial motives raises its own legal and moral questions. If AI becomes truly sentient, it could be considered a form of intellectual slavery.

On the other hand, giving generative AI personhood status would subject it to the same laws by which "real" people and corporate persons must abide. Programmers train deep learning neural networks and large language models on massive datasets, including popular novels and other copyrighted works. Several best-selling authors have filed suits against publishers using AI to generate works reflecting their styles. If an AI can claim personhood, human writers, musicians, and artists might more easily prove that the unauthorized use of copyrighted data to train rival AIs constitutes IP theft. This could severely restrict access to training data and stifle AI development, but it also would make the AI platform the defendant in these cases. Or might the AI in turn sue the people who programmed it, alleging some sort of abuse for force-feeding it the training data it used?

Other Rights and Responsibilities

Policymakers would need to clarify whether AIs can own intellectual property and what rights and duties come with it. Special AI IP laws may need to be drafted.

In any event, attributing IP ownership to nonhuman entities that nonetheless enjoy legal personhood would not only bestow upon them economic rights but also encumber them with responsibilities like taxes and liability.

If advanced AIs attain human-like consciousness and autonomy, should they be entitled to fundamental rights like privacy, liberty, and equality? And how would we hold AIs accountable if they violate laws or ethical codes?

Many argue that sufficiently advanced AIs deserve recognition as persons with intrinsic dignity and basic protections. Rights like bodily integrity, property ownership, and even voting and due process could become paramount as humanlike robots and metaverse avatars enter the mainstream. The rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom from abuse and discrimination could be warranted if AIs become sapient entities. Could a human sue a potential employer for bias if the company promotes a sentient automaton instead of them? Could the robot sue for digital discrimination? If AI is granted human rights, the frameworks developed for biological beings may not transfer neatly to synthetic ones. Entirely new "civil rights" for intelligent machines may need formulation.

Opponents of the AI rights movement believe that generative systems' personhood may open a can of worms by giving them rights intrinsically linked to human experiences that machines likely cannot authentically share. Rights framed around conscience, soul, family, and culture may not resonate with AI identity and consciousness. Radically extending human rights regimes before fully understanding machine cognition poses risks. More research into AI sentience is needed. And if machines are legally entitled to the pursuit of happiness, which they could not understand or enjoy, why not animals that comprehend the difference between pain and pleasure?

As noted, personhood demands accountability. Advanced AIs allowed to exercise independent agency would have to be held liable for harms they cause, whether physical, financial, or psychological. But culpability assessment mechanisms tailored for humans may be insufficient for complex neural network systems. New liability rules and technical transparency requirements may be necessary to trace blame for AI actions.

Still, while it is important to avoid granting full immunity, anthropomorphizing machines too much risks overestimating their "free will." Most current AIs have no self-generated motivations and goals. Their learning is shaped entirely by human input and objectives. Humans building and deploying AI irresponsibly should bear ultimate responsibility.


While recognizing the potential benefits of AI personhood in fostering innovation and acknowledging AI's unique capabilities, we must navigate this uncharted territory with cautious optimism. The path forward requires multifaceted considerations that transcend legal frameworks and delve into the very essence of what it means to be "human."

The conversation extends beyond intellectual property to the question of sentience and consciousness. If AI ever evolves to possess self-awareness, granting personhood becomes not just a legal technicality but an ethical imperative. Should an AI with self-preservation instincts be subject to "ownership" in the same way as inanimate property? These are weighty questions demanding an open and inclusive dialogue involving philosophers, neuroscientists, and religious leaders alongside lawyers and technologists.

Striking a balance between empowering AI and ensuring human oversight will be critical. Granting unrestricted rights to an AI with vast capabilities could pose existential risks. Consider an AI tasked with optimizing energy consumption; achieving "perfect" efficiency might involve shutting down entire cities, leading to devastating consequences. Mechanisms for human intervention and ethical checks must be woven into any legal framework surrounding AI personhood.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect lies in considering the impact on human well-being. Will granting personhood to AI create an "us vs. them" mentality, fostering fear and alienation? Conversely, could it foster a deeper understanding of consciousness and empathy towards other forms of intelligence? We must proactively address these societal implications, ensuring that AI advancements enhance, not diminish, our shared humanity.

Navigating this complex landscape requires global collaboration. By approaching it with a blend of legal expertise, ethical foresight, and philosophical grounding, we can ensure that this transformative technology serves as a tool for progress, not a catalyst for unintended consequences.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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