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Should Sentient Computers Have Legal Personality?

Should Sentient Computers Have Legal Personality?

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Published by LexAwkward
Article to be published in the third edition of the UTSLSS magazine The Full Bench, 2011.
Article to be published in the third edition of the UTSLSS magazine The Full Bench, 2011.

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Published by: LexAwkward on Oct 01, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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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
 District 9 
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
 Harry Potter 
?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
Star Trek 
 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.
Intelligence, self-awareness,consciousness.
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? 
That’s right.
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.
Should Sentient Computers Have Legal Personality? James Leaver 
Page 2 of 4
I’m taking part in a legal hearing todetermine my rights and status. Am I a person or property? 
And what’s at stake? 
My right to choose; perhaps my very life.
Commander, you have devoted your life to the study of cybernetics in general, and  Data in particular. And now you propose todismantle him? 
So that I can learn from it and construct more.
How many more? 
As many as are needed. Hundreds,thousands if necessary. There is no limit.
… Is that becoming a race? And won’t we be judged by how we treat that race? Now tell me Commander, what is Data? 
I don’t understand.
What is he? 
A Machine.
Is he? Are you sure? 
You see he’s met two of your criteria for  sentience, so what if he meets a third,consciousness? And even a smallest degree. What is he then? I don’t know, do you? 
 Picard, apparently unaware of courtprocedure, did not wait for the witness toanswer this question, but instead wentstraight on to his closing address:
Your Honour, … sooner or later this man, or others like him will succeed in replicating Commander Data. The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are. What he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedoms. Expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemnhim and all who come after him to servitude and  slavery? 
The case put forward by Picard was that if a being is sentient, regardless of whether it isartificial, then it should be regarded ashaving the right of self-determination.There is a problem, however, with this being the measure of whether somethingshould have legal personality. Anyonewould accept that non-human animals havesentience, and although there is amovement calling for such beings to beconferred with legal personhood, the callfor it is not overwhelming, or convincing.It is one thing to give animals certain rightsand immunities under the law to protecttheir dignity; it is an entirely different thingto say an animal should have legalpersonality, as animals are not independentactors within our society and do not have adesire to be.In his
, Blackstone makesreference to legal personhood, saying:
 Persons also are divided by the law into either natural persons, or artificial. Natural persons are  such as the God of nature formed us: artificial are such as created and devised by human laws  for the purposes of society and government;which are called corporations or bodies politic.
 Blackstone also gives us a fuller justificationfor the law conferring legal personhoodupon artificial entities like bodies politicand corporations, saying it is necessary for the advantage of the public to confer someartificial persons with perpetual succession,giving them what he calls
a kind of legal immortality 
To shew the advantages of these incorporations,let us consider the case of a college in either of our universities, founded 
ad studendum etorandum,
for the encouragement and support of religion and learning. If this was a mere voluntary assembly, the individuals whichcompose it might indeed read, pray, study, and  perform scholastic exercises together, so long as they could agree to do so: but they could neither  frame, nor receive, any laws or rules of their conduct; none at least, which would have any 
Commentaries on the Laws of   England 
(1765), ‘Of the Rights of Persons, 119.
“for studying and praying.”
Should Sentient Computers Have Legal Personality? James Leaver 
Page 3 of 4
binding force, for want of a coercive power tocreate a sufficient obligation. Neither could they be capable of retaining any privileges or immunities …
 On this view, the conferral of legalpersonality on the
is done to vest itwith permanence so the purposes andobjects of the artificial may serve society inperpetuity in spite of man’s impermanence.But this does not help us answer thequestion of whether a sentient computer should be given legal personality, because itis not necessary to give a computer legalpermanence or protections so it maycontinue to serve society. A computer carries out this function by the mere factthat it is put to use by man, for man’sobjects.The existence of the corporation as adistinct legal entity is a means by whichcertain social objects can be protected andgiven a force in law. Another example of the conferral of legal personality on theartificial is the
 Law of the Rights of Mother  Earth
, a recent Bolivian environmental lawthat confers legal personality on the earth,thereby giving the earth legal standing in acourt of law. As I understand it, interestedparties can bring an action on behalf of andfor the benefit of Mother Earth to protect itsrights. It is a legal fiction by whichenvironmental objectives can be achievedfor the benefit of society.The legal personality Mother Earth enjoysin Bolivia illustrates the benefit that theartificial (or in this case the
) maygain from the conferral of legal personality; but it does not help answer whether computers should have the same benefit.It is hard to imagine a world wherecomputers could be free actors beyond thelimitations contained within their code.
Commentaries on the Laws of   England 
(1765), ‘Of the Rights of Persons, 455-6.
Science fiction, a genre all aboutspeculation of what artificial intelligencemay mean for society, is defined by itsexploration of the frontier between artificialintelligence and such limitations. In the1940s, Isaac Asimov famously put forwardthe Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or,through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
 If there is ever a computer that has free will,or is able to act according to
or other folly, however, these laws must ceaseto be of effect as they are the ultimate barrier to free will. Then we must ask ourselves by what law should such acomputer be governed and what are themeans by which this occurs?Or perhaps the question is better answered by appealing to our compassion. How akinto us, by which I mean how susceptible tothe follies of the human condition, must acomputer be before it deserves theprotection and guarantees of the rule of law? Or is beyond us to feel a moralobligation towards something which inreality has no flesh of its own and isphysically nothing more than an organisedcombination of silicon, wiring and other hardware brought to ‘life’ by a flow of electrons though an integrated circuit?If we are able to design a sentient computer that transcends the adage ‘garbage in,garbage out’, and has a degree of free will,should that computer also not have freespeech? Similarly, if there was a ever a
Isaac Asimov, ‘Runaround’ in John CampbellJr (ed),
 Astounding Science Fiction
(March 1942),94.

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