Skip to main content

The age of robots is here

By Mark Goldfeder
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)
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
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT