Robot Rights

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Robot Rights

Some believe that we have moral obligations to our machines, and that, like people, robots should have rights too.

Key Insight

Some believe that we have moral obligations to our machines, and that, like people, robots should have rights too.

Why It Matters

We are seeing increased instances of humans bullying or abusing robots.


A recent study from the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Lab (HINTS) at the University of Washington discovered that children didn’t show the same kind of empathy for robots that they do with other humans. In the study, 60% of the child subjects thought that a humanoid robot named Robovie-II had feelings—yet more than half of them thought it was fine to lock him in the closet.

Researchers at ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, Osaka University, Ryukoku University, and Tokai University in Japan conducted an experiment to measure human empathy toward robots. They deployed Robovie through a mall in Osaka without a human minder. If someone walked into the robot’s path, it would politely ask the human to move. Adults complied—but children didn’t. And if unsupervised, the children were intentionally mean, kicking the robot, yelling at it and bullying it.

What’s Next

When it comes to our interactions with robots, what constitutes a moral violation? What rights should robots have, given that so many companies are building smart interfaces and cognitive systems? If we are teaching machines to think, and to learn from us humans, then what moral codes are we programming into our future generations of robots? Answering these questions will become increasingly urgent as robots proliferate in many aspects of our everyday lives.

The Impact

Do robots need worker rights, too? Researchers raise this question now, especially as robots are predicted to take on more meaningful roles within the workplace and in society. The European Union is already discussing whether there ought to be a special legal status of “electronic persons” to protect sophisticated robots.


ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, Buddy, Honda, LG, MIT Media Lab, Mitsubishi, Osaka University, Panasonic, Ritsumeikan University, Ryukoku University, Sharp, SoftBank Robotics, Sony, Tokai University, Tokyo University, Toyota, University of Washington, Wyss Institute at Harvard.Mechatronics Lab, Buddy, Fujitsu, Groove X, Honda, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, LG, MIT Media Lab, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nanyang Technological University, Panasonic, Ritsumeikan University, Samsung, Sharp, Shinpo Electronics, SoftBank Robotics, Sony, Tokyo University, Toyota.