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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT