Skip to main content

The age of robots is here

By Mark Goldfeder
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Picture the scene: You walk into a coffee shop and order a cappuccino. The young man behind the counter hands you a drink and wishes you a pleasant day with a Colgate smile. Suddenly his expression drops, his face turns stiff, there's a muted bang and some smoke emerges from his nose. He crashes to the ground in an almighty rigid clunk.<!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br>Could this be the fate of some poor future android? Will malfunction one day be the only means of telling human and robot apart?<!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br>Here, CNN takes you through the evolution of the robot: from literary fancy to paranoid androids with artificial brains and emotional baggage.<!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br><i>Gallery by </i><i><a href='https://twitter.com/MoniqueLouiseR' target='_blank'>Monique Rivalland</a></i><!-- -->
</br> Picture the scene: You walk into a coffee shop and order a cappuccino. The young man behind the counter hands you a drink and wishes you a pleasant day with a Colgate smile. Suddenly his expression drops, his face turns stiff, there's a muted bang and some smoke emerges from his nose. He crashes to the ground in an almighty rigid clunk.

Could this be the fate of some poor future android? Will malfunction one day be the only means of telling human and robot apart?

Here, CNN takes you through the evolution of the robot: from literary fancy to paranoid androids with artificial brains and emotional baggage.

Gallery by Monique Rivalland
HIDE CAPTION
The evolution of the humanoid robot
1920: The world's first 'robot'
1928: A very British robot
1932: The alpha robot
1934: Mac the Mechanical Man
1939: Smoking robot
1950: Talking bots, Turing Test
1975: Carwash bot
1976: Robotic traffic warden
1998: Express yourself
2006: Actroid android
2007: My perfect woman
2011: Human robot love
2013: First robot suicide
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Computer program passes the Turing Test for artificial intelligence for the first time
  • Mark Goldfeder: It's a sign that the age of robots has truly arrived
  • He says it's time to rewrite the law to permit recognition of robots as persons
  • Goldfeder: A robot could be held liable for damages -- and it might need insurance

Editor's note: Mark Goldfeder, senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, is the author of a forthcoming book on robots in the law. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- For the first time, a computer program passed the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. A computer on Saturday was able to trick one third of a team of researchers convened by the University of Reading into believing it was human -- in this case a 13-year old boy named Eugene.

The Turing Test, named for British mathematician Alan Turing, is often thought of as the benchmark test for true machine intelligence. Since he introduced it in 1950, thousands of scientific teams have tried to create something capable of passing, but none has succeeded.

Until now.

Mark Goldfeder
Mark Goldfeder

And that outcome means we need to start grappling with whether machines with artificial intelligence should be considered persons, as far as the law is concerned.

In 1920, Karel Capek introduced the mainstream world to the concept of artificial people in his play "Rossum's Universal Robots" (the word robot comes from the Czech word for serf labor). Since then, society has been fascinated by the idea of a robot walking among us, or even crossing over into personhood like a modern-day Pinocchio.

The fascination continues; just take a look at this year's box office. In the recent film "Transcendence," Johnny Depp starred as a sentient machine. In the critically acclaimed "Her," Joaquin Phoenix's character fell in love with an advanced operating system named Samantha. Coming attractions include more installments in the rebooted "RoboCop" franchise; "Star Wars: Episode VII," with its universally lovable droids; and, of course, "Terminator 5."

A question at the heart of all these movies is this: At what point does a computer move from property to personhood?

Robotic legal personhood in the near future makes sense. Artificial intelligence is already part of our daily lives. Bots are selling stuff on eBay and Amazon, and semiautonomous agents are determining our eligibility for Medicare. Predator drones require less and less supervision, and robotic workers in factories have become more commonplace. Google is testing self-driving cars, and General Motors has announced that it expects semiautonomous vehicles to be on the road by 2020.

When the robot messes up, as it inevitably will, who exactly is to blame? The programmer who sold the machine? The site owner who had nothing to do with the mechanical failure? The second party, who assumed the risk of dealing with the robot? What happens when a robotic car slams into another vehicle, or even just runs a red light?

Liability is why some robots should be granted legal personhood. As a legal person, the robot could carry insurance purchased by its employer. As an autonomous actor, it could indemnify others from paying for its mistakes, giving the system a sense of fairness and ensuring commerce could proceed unchecked by the twin fears of financial ruin and of not being able to collect. We as a society have given robots power, and with that power should come the responsibility of personhood.

From the practical legal perspective, robots could and should be people. As it turns out, they can already officially fool us into thinking that they are, which should only strengthen their case.

The notion of personhood has expanded significantly, albeit slowly, over the last few thousand years. Throughout history, women, children and slaves have all at times been considered property rather than persons. The category of persons recognized in the courts has expanded to include entities and characters including natural persons aside from men (such as women, slaves, human aliens, illegitimate children and minors) as well as unnatural or juridical persons, such as corporations, labor unions, nursing homes, municipalities and government units.

Legal personality makes no claim about morality, sentience or vitality. To be a legal person is to have the capability of possessing legal rights and duties within a certain legal system, such as the right to enter into contracts, own property, sue and be sued. Not all legal persons have the same rights and obligations, and some entities are only considered "persons'" for some matters and not others.

Just last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Hobby Lobby case about whether a corporation is person enough to ask for a religious exemption.

New categories of personhood are matters of decision, not discovery. The establishment of personhood is an assessment made to grant an entity rights and obligations, regardless of how it looks and whether it could pass for human.

To make the case for granting personhood to robots, it's not necessary to show that they can function as persons in all the ways that a "person" may be understood by a legal system. It's enough to show that they may be considered persons for a particular set of actions in a way that makes the most sense legally and logically.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT