The rights of robots

December 21, 2006

A story on NPR this morning led me to a BBC article about the possibility of robots receiving the same rights accorded to humans. This came from a study by the Office of Science and Innovation Horizon Scanning Centre, which released over 200 papers forecasting trends that might develop in various fields. One of the papers, entitled Utopian Dream or Rise of the Machines?, ponders the possibility of robots developing to a point where they assume the same responsibilities and receive the same rights as humans. (Or, perhaps similar rights and responsibilties.)

This sounds like a strange science fiction scenario, but this report makes me wonder how developments in artificial intelligence (A.I.) and robotics could relate to information professions in the coming years. More specifically, how could developments in A.I. change the nature of librarianship? Would perceptions about the profession change? Would A.I. interfaces be immobile like HAL in 2001, or would we have anthropomorphic robots like Data in Star Trek (TNG)? Would there be more long-term costs or benefits to having sophisticated A.I.?

One can hope that science fiction and history have both prepared us well for the possibility of having sophisticated A.I. and robots. Certainly, we have encountered our fair share of fictional robots who can elicit fear or sympathy (or occasionally both, as in the case of HAL). As technology speeds along, we in the information professions might need to take some time to ponder some of the books we have read and films we have viewed with robots.

I would like to take the time to suggest the film A.I., based on the Brian Aldiss short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” Stanley Kubrick was supposed to direct, but his death in 1999 prevented him from executing his idea. However, he had collaborated with Steven Spielberg on the script, and the younger director decided to go on with the project himself. Released in 2001, oddly enough, the film is a futuristic science fiction epic that also has a fantastical quality. It follows the challenges confronted by David (Haley Joel Osment), a robot made to look and act like a “real boy.” (I have always found it odd that he shares the same first name as 2001’s primary human character, even though he is artificial like HAL.) I have only seen the movie once, but it still haunts me for a number of reasons that I outline in a review I wrote for Amazon (below my review of the score for Richard Strauss’ opera Salome). I would recap my review here, but it seems rather redundant.

Like Blade Runner (1982), which has similar themes, A.I. did not do well at the box office. A good number of people also hated it, but others loved it (myself included). Personally, I hope that it will eventually receive the same acclaim that caught up with Blade Runner. Maybe by the time A.I. becomes more sophisticated, people will take notice again of A.I.. We might need to as we wrestle with the relevant issues.

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2 Responses to “The rights of robots”

  1. Jason Says:

    Looks like Wired has a little something about it, followed by some comments. Most people seem derisive, which is easy to understand. I do admit that this issue seems a little outlandish, but enough people have already pondered it to make me wonder…


  2. […] As a final question, would we eventually need to think about the issues to which I refer in my posting from last week about the rights of robots? […]


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