Should Sentient Computers Have Legal Personality? James Leaver
Page 1 of 4
Should SentientComputers HaveLegal Personality?
There is a matter that has been troublingme for some time now, and I think thisissue of
The Full Bench
on technology andthe law is a good forum to share it withyou. You can probably guess what mytrouble is from the title of this article, andlest you accuse me of being silly, pleaseknow I am quite earnest about the matter.It started about six months ago when I waswatching
and I wondered
if extra-terrestrials ever find themselves marooned onearth, would they have any standing before the law?
Would they be recognised as havinglegal personality? Or would they have nostanding in a court of law, unable toenforce a right, seek a remedy or claimsome legal entitlement?Could you or I seek a writ of habeas corpusto protect an extra-terrestrial from arbitraryimprisonment? Or would the being betreated as a mere chattel, capable of ownership and possession, like a house elf in
?Further, could the law be
if it did notextend legal personality to extra-terrestrials?
was intelligent, felt pain andexperienced something akin to humanemotion. Most importantly, though, he wassentient. Sentience is the state of beingendowed with feeling and consciousness.Or in the words of Laurence of Arabiawriting of the Arab Revolt:
the living knew themselves just sentient puppets on God’s stage
The possibility of such a question ever arising is negligible. But what if we one daycreate a sentient computer?
T E Lawrence,
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
This was canvassed in a
when Starship Enterprise-D’s androidLieutenant Commander Data brings a legalaction to prevent the Starfleet fromdisassembling him to carry out scientificresearch. The question for determinationwas Data’s legal status: did he have a rightto self-determination or was he a merechattel? Here is an excerpt of a cross-examination by Captain Picard,representing Data, of the cyberneticistwanting to disassemble Data:Picard:
Commander, is your contention that Data is not a sentient being and therefore not entitled to all the rights reserved to all life- forms within this federation?
Data is not sentient, no.
Commander, would you enlighten us what is required for sentience.
Prove to the court I am sentient.
This is absurd, we all know you’re sentient.
So I’m sentient but Commander Data is not?
Why? Why am I sentient?
Well, you are self-aware.
Ah, that’s the second of your criteria. Let’s deal with the first, intelligence. Is Commander Data intelligent?
Yes. It has the ability to learn and understand and to cope with new situations.
Like this hearing?
What about self-awareness. What does that mean? Why am I self-aware?
Because you are conscious of your existence and actions. You are aware of yourself and your own ego.
Commander Data, what are you doing now?
‘The Measure of a Man’,
Star Trek: The Next Generation
, session 2 episode 9, 13 February1989.