Engineering and Computer Science Professor Asks Should Robots Have Rights?

by Rick Sturdivant

Saudi Arabia recently granted citizenship to a robot named Sophia. According to Fortune.com, the announcement came during a technology and investment conference, raising questions about whether the sensational news signals a significant societal shift or was merely meant to boost publicity. In either case, it demonstrates that the relationships and rights historically reserved for humans are being challenged. If robots can become legal citizens with the same privileges and entitlements as their human counterparts, what next? Marriage? To properly evaluate and process such an eventuality, the Christian community must consider at least three fundamental questions.

First, what does this mean for the definition of marriage and does marriage have an essence? If something has an essence, then its definition is immutable and cannot be redefined. For some Christians, marriage has a stable essence—it is restricted to unions between human beings, and more specifically, between a man and woman. Others see human-robot marriage as another example of the ongoing elimination of meaning for marriage and removal of the foundations of Western society. I believe that essences do exist, are necessary for marriage to remain meaningful, and provide the foundation for multiple entities critical to society, such as human rights.

Here’s why: The foundation for accepting the concept of human rights depends on the belief that human beings have innate value. If human beings, however, do not have a stable essence, then they can be redefined by those in power, as seen in Nazi Germany during World War II. The Nazis denied the basic premise that all humans have a stable essence. As a result, they redefined Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and physically handicapped as no longer being fully human, and based on those definitions, they murdered more than 10 million people. If stable essences do not exist, then anything in society, even human life, can be arbitrarily redefined and rendered meaningless. I believe this process has already begun to erode marriage. Society has rejected that marriage has an essence and has, therefore, redefined it again and again beyond recognition except to those who know its stable essence.

Christians still recognize the true meaning of marriage, because the best source for deriving stable essences is the immutable God who created them. His revelation to us through nature and Scripture provides knowledge about the essence of things that are foundational to society and human flourishing such as marriage, family, love, good character, and friendship. For these reasons, a robust society must retain stable essences for entities such as human marriage. One thing is clear—given the possibility of marriage with robots, the debate over what constitutes a marriage may be far from over.

The second question Christians must address is whether the advent of robot-human marriage impacts all human relationships. If humans can be replaced by machines in our most fundamental relationships, does this diminish the meaning for human relationships in general? It logically follows that the person or society that prefers the companionship of robots may not value humans in the same way.

Consider the story about Zheng Jiajia’s new wife. Tired of familial pressure to marry, the 31-year-old engineer married Yingying—the artificial-intelligence robot he built. Though he must carry his 60-pound “bride” for now, he plans to upgrade her once technology is developed to allow her to walk and do household chores. While some may laugh at this true story, others deem relationships between humans and robots a subject of serious research. Case in point: Springer publishes the proceedings of the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, now in its third year. The papers, subjected to double-blind peer review, explore robot-human relationships and how they replace relationships previously reserved for humans.

Finally, Christians must consider whether robots will ever behave in authentically human-like ways. An important part of meaningful relationships between people is the dynamic and unexpected interactions that occur. Is it possible for robots to have dynamic interactions with humans? In other words, can unique personalities emerge from their electronic circuits and programming? To determine the possibility, scientists have engaged in groundbreaking research on symbol emergence in robots, in a quest to establish meaningful relationships with humans.

While this discussion of robot-human relationships may have raised more questions than answers, Christians must remain engaged in the dialogue and research regarding the growing field of artificial intelligence. We must think carefully about what it means to be human in light of the teachings of Jesus, the response we have as Christians to human-robot relationships, and how we wrestle with important concepts such as stable essences, without which it may not be possible to maintain the foundations of our social fabric, such as human rights and marriage.

Rick Sturdivant, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and Computer Science.

Originally published in the Summer '18 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.