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Do Robots Have (or Deserve) Workers Rights?by@ShannonFlynn
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Do Robots Have (or Deserve) Workers Rights?

by ShannonFebruary 22nd, 2022
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With robots and automation forever changing the workplace, how do we deal with workers’ rights? The question of workplace rights for robots is part of a larger debate about robot and artificial intelligence ethics.

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With robots and automation forever changing the workplace, how do we deal with workers’ rights? The question of workplace rights for robots is part of a much larger debate about robot and artificial intelligence ethics. The concept of a robot going to court may seem like a scene from a science fiction movie, but today it is very much a reality, one that our society as a whole must face sooner rather than later. 

The State of Robots in the Workplace

Robots have been part of the workforce for decades, oftentimes in factories or manufacturing facilities. However, today, robots are finding a place in virtually every industry. It is important to remember that the term “robot” includes a variety of devices and technologies, such as artificial intelligence and software programs, in addition to the physical robots we tend to think of first. Sometimes a robot is even a combination of these technologies, a physical robot that is also artificially intelligent. 

Robots and AI are no longer confined to easily-overlooked factory jobs. Their jobs are increasingly impacting our everyday lives. For example, multiple companies are developing self-driving cars that would be used as taxi or ridesharing vehicles, where a robot would be independently driving people around. 

What happens if the car gets into an accident? Can the passenger sue the autonomous car for their injuries? Lawyers are already exploring this issue with autonomous robotic delivery vehicles, which pose a risk of hurting pedestrians and drivers on public streets. The same questions apply to any robot in the workplace, from robots on construction sites to AI programs in customer service centers. 

The Robot Rights in Question

If robots were granted official, legal rights in the workplace, they would not look like those of humans. When robots are such a central part of every industry, it is critical that we establish who is responsible for a robot’s actions and what a robot can and cannot do in the workplace. The few robot rights that do exist today generally focus on this issue of accountability, which will likely remain central to the robot ethics debate in the years ahead. 

For example, workplace robot rights might include guidelines about the consequences for a robot injuring a human co-worker. If we decide that robots are not sentient and therefore cannot make their own conscious decisions, then an individual robot cannot be sued or otherwise convicted of committing a crime. Instead, the question of liability would apply to either the robot’s developers or the employer that was operating the robot. Should either of these parties have worker's rights that protect them and their robotic devices?

These are serious questions that policymakers must address. Human workers’ rights often focus on things like workplace safety and the maximum number of hours an individual can work without a break. When it comes to robot rights, the focus turns to whether or not a robot is responsible for its actions. 

What happens if a robot does become intelligent enough to act outside of protocol? Is it ethical to have the robot shut down, disassembled, or imprisoned in some way? To answer these questions, we must determine the point at which we consider robots sentient, or alive. 

A Question of Intelligence

Discussions of robot rights often get muddled by attempts to apply human rights to robots. For example, someone might argue that an AI should be paid just like a human customer service agent. Arguments like these are based on the notion that robots are somehow emotional, independent beings like humans and are therefore capable of suffering. This is simply not the case, and it may never be.

Today’s robots are no more “alive” than a computer mouse or a lightbulb. They cannot do anything without programming telling them exactly what to do. Since these machines are not conscious, they won’t be bothered if they are programmed to work 24/7. So, for the time being, it is the robots’ creators and operators who need robot rights since they are responsible for robots’ actions. However, it may be possible in the near future to create robotic intelligence that is sentient and capable of complex decision-making. 

Some believe that we should never invent AI as smart as humans, known as Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI. This is the kind of AI that most people think of when they imagine a robot as smart as a human. These AI could in theory be smarter than humans, not only sentient but capable of independent thought and evolution. Only with AI at this level could a robot conceivably experience suffering, want, or other emotions. 

This poses a serious threat for the future of humanity, to such a degree that AGI could be considered too dangerous to ever be invented, like weapons of mass destruction. Some experts have suggested that robots should never have civil rights because we as humans should never invent a technology intelligent enough to compete with us. By granting workers rights to robots, we are subconsciously opening the door for the development of robots that are capable of matching or surpassing human intelligence. 

The Slippery Slope of Robot Rights

Science fiction films often show friendly companion robots that are more like pets or friends than machines. These robots are drastically different from those of the real world, though. The reality of the situation is that today’s robots are nothing more than machines and it may be best for humanity to keep it that way. 

Granting robots workers rights is currently no more necessary than granting rights to conveyor belts or automatic doors. However, we do have to seriously consider the rights of those who operate and develop the robots that are flooding the workforce. The more we question whether robots themselves are deserving of rights, the more we idealize them as emotional beings, something today’s robots are far from becoming.