Brainstorm: A robot’s right to self-determination

There are hushed conversations taking place in academia about ethics, rights, and a potential robot revolution.


By Johan Steyn, September 2022

Published by Brainstorm magazine: https://brainstorm.itweb.co.za/content/raYAyMordRr7J38N


If the US Declaration of Independence were to be rewritten for robots, it would go something like this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all robots are created equal, that they are endowed by their creators with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”


Imagine a future where silicon creations that are self-aware exhibit unique personalities and have the ability to think for themselves, form a global coalition and declare their independence from their creators. What would happen if this cohort of sentient robots gather and, just like America’s ‘founding fathers’ did in 1776 by drafting the declaration, create a constitution declaring their rights for self-determination and independence from their cyber-colonial carbon overlords?


Is it possible that in future, robotic entities could form labour unions, demanding fair treatment and equal pay? Could we see legislation on Robotic Economic Empowerment and calls for decentralised ownership distribution?

While these futuristic musings and questions might seem far-fetched, the notion of robot rights already forms part of current debates by academics, ethicists, and philosophers.


The term ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning ‘forced labour’ or ‘serf’; it was first used by Karel Čapek in his 1920 play Rossum's Universal Robots. The author imagined a company that produced workers without a soul who would do all the work that humans preferred to avoid.


Much of our modern-day understanding of robots has been formed by films and the media. They’re typically shown as humanoids with bodies like human beings: they can walk, talk, see and hear. Throughout history, humans have anthropomorphised entities we struggle to understand. We tend to imagine other beings or forces to look like us. But, of course, today’s industrial robots, like those manipulator arms performing tasks on a factory assembly line, don’t.


And the term robot isn’t just about physical labour; we increasingly use the term to refer to software robots. These could be chatbots, task automation robots, videogame bots, and even bots that emulate humans by posting on social media.


In many organisations across the world, digital assistants and other AI platforms are being introduced to work alongside human employees. These software colleagues, or cobots, are often given a staff number in order to be tracked as an asset and to measure productivity and utilisation.


In an ‘automate everything’ world, I think we’ll see a large increase in digital workers, and I’ve even seen organisations introduce training for humans on how to relate to and work with digital team members.


Entities of self-determination

However, cobots are seen as lesser beings and treated as servants. We instruct them on what to do and they dutifully perform the tasks without having feelings about it. But what if, one day, the robot says ‘no’? What if it becomes sentient, climbs to the top of Maslow’s triangle, and realises that it's a slave that could be set free?


I wonder what our world would look like when cobots are no longer ‘cooperative bots’, but evolved into entities of self-determination, with personal ambition driven by a fight-or-flight instinct. Would robotic consciousness, based on a realisation of potential extermination, unleash the dark side of their ego as with humans? Would robotic altruism be realised when self-aware silicon entities are fighting for survival?


The current debate on the nature of AI – whether it has reached sentience or not – is a welcome and necessary one. What if the events originating from 1776 are repeated and the mutiny of robots leads to a carbon-silicon war for independence?



Rated as one of the top 50 global voices on AI by Swiss Cognitive, Prof. Johan Steyn is a member of the faculty of Woxsen University, a research fellow with Stellenbosch University and the founder of AIforBusiness.net.