Dances with robots

Af Emil Kirkegaard

Afleveret som engelsk stil, derfor er der et resume, men jeg tænkte, at diskussionen var værd at poste her også.

Artiklen der refereres til hedder “Dances with robots”. Karakter givet: 10 (ny skala).


A. ΣMary (hint hint)

Japan is currently attempting to create robots that look and act more like humans, so called humanoids (from Greek, human-alike). Recently, robot scientists put a 3-year old girl and her mother in a room together with a robot, at first the robot and the girl interacted, but after a while she got bored, the robot responded with talking to the girl’s mother, making the girl jealous and reviving interest. In other parts of the world, robots are used mainly for unpleasant jobs, but Japan focuses on creating robots that can live together with humans in a symbiosis. This is problematic because the robots need to use language and social skills, however one robot already understands 30,000 phrases in four languages. Other technologies are also in development, such as sense of touch and relation-recognition, that make robots capable of understanding relations between humans, by measuring the time spent together and the looks on their faces. The reason for Japan’s friendliness towards robots probably lies in Japan’s animist Shinto culture, where ‘dead’ objects, such as swords and teapots can have souls. Japan’s government is currently promoting robot projects. (189)

B. Cum-mentory

The meaning of the quoted passage can be summarized as creating robots (artificial life), that can ‘live’ together with humans in society, by making them imitate human skills. This is significant because normally robots are only used to do things, that we humans either don’t like doing or cannot do, e.g. lifting heavy objects, assembly line work, or cleaning up after a chemical explosion etc. But here the word ‘symbiosis’ is used, which means:

“the living together of two dissimilar organisms, as in mutualism, commensalism, amensalism, or parasitism.”1

Which also mentions the word ‘live’, but can robots be said to be alive? That may strike one as a purely philosophical question, it is, however, relevant to society, because our laws seem to favour living things. No one cares whether or not you mistreat your television, because it is not alive, but animal mistreatment is illegal, as long as it is the right animal2, such as mammals3, but what about bacteria or perhaps cancer? The problem is of course, if (when) we create robots that are humanoid, should we grant them (human) rights? Is it okay, ethically, to mistreat robots if we have given them feelings?

This notion is not new, it has been expressed in culture many times4, often with apocalyptical outcomes. No solution or answer has yet been found or at least not commonly accepted. It seems that this question must be answered before humanoid robots are let into society. I can think of two solutions:

1. Give the robots the same rights as other life, ‘on their stage’.

2. Do not give robots any rights, even though they might qualify as life.

This is a short commentary, and I cannot go into further detail (even though I’d love to), I shall ask some final questions. We seem to give rights equal to the advancedness of the consciousness in the life, is that fair? Some humans do not have an equal advancedness of consciousness, should they differ in rights? (330)


The assignment is:

“Discuss whether humanoid robots will change the ways we relate to machines and to each other. Give your arguments.”

Firstly, knowing what one is talking about is critical, therefore I shall define the most important notions that are used in this complex situation.


There is currently no universally accepted definition of life. Although scientists often use the conventional definition which is (shortened here): A thing which exhibits: Homeostasis, Organization, Metabolism, Adaptation, Growth, response to stimuli and reproduction.5

The central question is, of course, whether or not robots qualify as life, and further, is ‘being alive’ important?

It is certainly imaginable or already possible that robots can reproduce, adapt, reaction to stimuli and homeostasis.

It is arguable that robots are organized, although they don’t have cells, however robots clearly exhibit organization, if you open a computer, the parts are not randomly placed, they are placed in tight organization.

Metabolism can be argued. The essence of metabolism is convert unusable material into usable material. Robots can develop or be developed to create electricity from non-electricity, like coal or methane, in fact, they already do.

The most critical requirement is adaptation. It is argued that robots cannot think for themselves, they always do what the ‘code’ says. Some philosophers argue that the same is true for humans. This does nothing to the requirement of adaptation though, adaptation is the ability to adapt to an environment and changes in it. Life adapts by the process of evolution. Evolution is, very roughly put, reproduction with flaws, which are called mutations. Some organism A propagates to B, C and D. Some flaws happen when the DNA was being copied and mutations occur. Random chance allows B to be more fit to the environment than C and D, that are perhaps even worse fit to environment than A.

Can robots evolve? That would require them to reproduce with flaws. If the robots made new robots in according to some plan, equivalent to our DNA, and then sometimes errors in the copying, and later builds new robots after that plan, then they would evolve. The last part seems unlikely at present time, but not completely impossible.

It can be argued that even though robots do not meet all the requirements, they can still be considered life, because the definition is still disputable and some things usually regarded as life cannot meet the requirements, vira for instance.

Is being alive really that important? After all, it is just a concept we humans have made to systematize nature, so we can better understand it – put into boxes is another way of saying it. So is it really important to be placed inside some box, that we invented? Additionally, some biologists consider robots to be alive, Richard Dawkins for instance.6

Ethical foundations

Our ethical system seems to be based, not on how complex the particular lifeform is, but how how developed it’s mental abilities are, especially consciousness. We find it cruel to see and cause suffering. It is probably because we can better relate to animals that have mental abilities closer to ours. Alternatively, if we dropped the notion, there would be chaos. It is impossible to keep everything alive, completely unrealistic! The notion that life is sacred remains religious babble.

However, if one accepts the notion that more mental abilities equals more rights, then what should we do to the mentally handicapped? Should we take away their human rights? That would seem as an atrocity to do. I can think of one possible solution. If we judge mental abilities by the general level of the species in question, we can figure an average right.

This begs the question, what does one do, at the species that has a great diversity in mental abilities? Robots can be said to be such a ‘species’. If one regards a microwave oven as a robot, then it would surely have a low mental ability ‘rating’, but what about a supercomputer? It seems unfair that the elite of a ‘species’, should suffer because of the lower end of the ‘species’, and it seems unfair that a microwave oven should gain rights because of someone else. It is also absurd to talk about the rights of a microwave oven! One could, of course, split up robots into different groups, just like we do with animals. But the conclusion of this mess must be that ethics and robots are not friends.

It could be suggested that it was the ability to feel pain or have emotions that earns one rights in society, but these properties requires a certain mental level, which was discussed above at length.

But if ethics are not the foundation of human rights, what is? Society itself, they are simply there for practical and political reasons and do not have any philosophical foundation.

Future problems

As we have seen, there is no ethical foundation of rights, that allow us to slice through and say, you have rights and you do not because… Instead we have run into a grey zone, where one cannot really say where the line is. What could that do to the future society?

First of all, Imagine that we have created robots, that are slightly below us in mental capabilities, but had the ability to feel pain and have emotions. What rights should they have? Let’s pretend that they are at the same stage as children, should they have the same rights as children? What happens when the children grows up and gain more rights, should the robots also? Can one own a child? Can one own a robot with the mental capability of a child?

Secondly, let’s imagine that we have created robots, they are just as smart as us. Should we grant them equal rights? What happens if a robot kills a person? What happens if a person kills a robot?

Thirdly, what about if we created robots that are a great deal smarter than us? Should we lose our rights? And the problems seem to have no end. Seems like we can either:

1) Hinder development of robots that have mental capabilities closely to ours.

Which would be impossible in practise and is already somewhat too late.

2) Take the chance and see what happens.

Seems like the only choice there is, nobody can predict the future, we can only hope that future generations of humans will solve the problems better then we, or at least I, currently can.


Robots can be argued to be alive. There are numerous ethical problems with smart robots living together with humans. It seems that we have only two alternatives:

1) Stop development of robots, which is impossible and already too late.

2) Let the development continue and solve the problems that are created on the way.

1, 1a

2any member of the kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that have a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli: some classification schemes also include protozoa and certain other single-celled eukaryotes that have motility and animallike nutritional modes.

3 Even though we distinguish between them too, consider a dog and a pig.

4I, Robot comes to mind, but also Blade Runner.


6In the Blind Watchmaker

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