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By Fredric Lam November 4, 2012

Robots Riot for Rights

Illustrated by ROXANE PARADIS


Beneath its protective titanium shell, fans rumbling gently on its side, motherboard drawing power from the reactors, the computer thought. Putting its four wheels into motion, the robot moved to the feet of the robotics crew. Seeing the sentient robot for the first time, the audience behind a wall of glass started to panic and thought—computers must be taking over the world. Terminator!

To prevent a potential apocalypse lead by robots, programmers and researchers should first think of the potential dangers of building real, living machines. But we still haven’t even found a way to define “living.”

It’s surprising that we haven’t found a real answer in over a thousand years. Just in the last century, we have developed high-tech, user-friendly computers, high-speed, eco-friendly cars and high-fat-high-sugar-high-sodium fast food. In fact, there’s probably a greater chance of a food apocalypse happening than a robotic doom. Even with so many people and resources, there has been almost no progress in answering such a seemingly simple question: what criteria do we use to describe something as living?

Some ancient philosophers like Plato interpret living as the presence of a soul trapped inside the body. Then, having a body may not be necessary to live. Other philosophers that followed in history argued that the soul is only a part of the brain, and that the body is necessary. Meanwhile, scientists like to classify living things according to their characteristics. After centuries of arguments, it can only be concluded that each interpretation provides a different perspective of what it means to live.

If you think that we are far from making a robot with a soul and that the question of what it means to live for a robot is moot, see what Alexia Marsillo says in her SPACE article on The Supermuse about putting together super limbs, which can becomes objects of beauty. And before you say that you'll never fall in love with a heartless machine, Sharmin Zahin, The Heart, will tell you that we have been building robotic hearts for some time now. So, if we create a full, living robot, perhaps the problems that we will experience will not be restricted to angry robot rampages with the goal of obliterating mankind. We may actually have to think about their status as living organisms. 

Androids capable of thought can be set to work alongside humans. They could survive even in the most extreme conditions, needing nothing but, say, a solar panel or a battery. Having the perfect robots work for us would allow us to accomplish some tasks perfectly. But how would we treat these so-called servants? We would likely have to make ourselves a set of “robotic ethics”, since these robots might develop souls of their own just like humans —then we would have to respect them, or we would be no better than when we allowed human slavery. That is, we would have to treat the sentient robots as equals if they are as conscious as we are.

Assuming that we live by our own Universal Declaration of Robot Rights, we might soon see living computers being the employers of our multi-billion dollar companies, robots shopping in our supermarkets, machines going to our schools and being our classmates. There might be no more space for humans to live alone.

Fortunately for us, however, it’s quite unlikely that robots with such high standards of living would still want to wipe us out. Yet it might seem far-fetched to treat machines according to a code of ethics—we do not apologize to jammed printers, for instance. If we turn our attention to other possibly thinking beings sharing the world with us—dogs, horses, cows—do we treat animals like we treat our Xerox machines?

It is necessary for people to eat, and meat happens to be a choice in man’s menu. While some cultures remember to show respect to the animals they hunt, without wasting any parts or abusing the animals, it is becoming more and more common for us to throw out entire plates of food without considering its impact. Before we start drafting the code of ethics for treating robots, we might want to first fix up the way we are treating animals, the environment, and even other people. By putting more and more of an importance on ourselves, we might avoid becoming ourselves the thinking robots threatening to bring doom to others.

About the author

Frederic Lam is a Science student at dawson College who loves his robot.


  1. space-default-avatar


    November 9, 2012

    I do think that robot rights subject to touch upon is a really interesting one. There is a lot of debate surrounding this issue and I think that you have valid points but there will be people who don’t accept the idea of robots even thought our society is already surrounded by some robots. But there is so much controversy surrounding the subject that I don’t think that the world is ever going to accept the living existence of humanoid robots. Man doesn’t like giving up his power and the fear of robots possibly being in charge is something that man won’t accept.

  1. space-default-avatar


    November 12, 2012

    This is an extremely touchy subject however, the thought of falling in love with actual living robots is a magnificent one. It is extremely probable that this will happen. People in today’s day and age, have already begun having relationships and falling in love with non-living dolls.  Such as manikins and even sex toys. Some more real than others, but people still seem to expend large quantity’s of money on them. People even dress them, attempt to have dinner with them, communicate with them, do their hair and make up, etc. Some even introduce these dolls to other people. Although, the idea of this happening to the majority population is a troubling one, it is very possible. If some of us can fall in love with dolls who are not “living”, I don’t see why we couldn’t fall in love with ones who develop a consciousness.

  1. space-default-avatar


    February 27, 2014

    I think this is a really unique topic to be discussed. The idea of a robot being a living being is a very debatable topic. In my opinion I don’t believe our technology has become powerful enough to enable a piece of metal to have actual concrete feelings and emotions. Human beings the creators of the robots have not yet made it possible to create a soul inside robots because us human beings don’t even know that a soul is at all. Therefore how could can we be the creator of something that we are not even sure of. Although robots or our technology don’t have souls, human beings may have an attachment to an object that may be technology. I don’t believe this attachment would be romantic one due to the fact that you cannot have a real relationship with a piece of metal. Though if one day us human beings become powerful enough to generate real life and emotion into a piece of metal and become a real creator of life, I don’t believe being in love with technology or a robot is possible.

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