Can you murder a robot?

The ethics of Murdering Machines

Well, can you?

A recent BBC article has speculated on the topic. It reported on the tragic murder of the aptly named Hitchbot (a hitchhiking robot), which was found with its arms and legs ripped off and it’s head nowhere to be seen. The Hitchbot, remarkably, was built to resemble a child, and one can only think of the national terror, the relentless manhunt, the unrelenting media storm if such a horrific act was carried out on an actual child.

So, what is the difference? What makes a robot a robot and a child a child, and, moreover, what makes the former significantly more murderable than the other? In fact, what makes a robot more murderable than literally any form of what we would consider life to be, from child to elephant to the humble worm?

There are three key words to consider here: robot, life and murder.

“But that is not to say that, in the future, things will not change.”

Almost all of us, even the most carnivorous among us, value life. At present there is a sweeping ethical shift in society with the rise of veganism and its derivatives, but even the stoutest meat-eaters, I would imagine, would be opposed to taking Bessie the cow, ripping off her limbs, fleeing with her head, and leaving her to rot. As much as the consumption of meat constitutes ‘murder’ in some senses, it can be said that we have a spectrum of humanness that applies to living beings that are not humans. There is a hierarchy, of sorts. Any murder of humans is universally considered morally unacceptable, whether there is humanness to the act or not (one need only look at the ethics surrounding euthanasia). Any murder of animals is considered morally unacceptable, unless the act is done humanely. Yet any supposed murder of robots, it appears, lacks real moral implications at all (think of the aforementioned BBC article, where roboticist Professor Noel Sharkey repeatedly banged the head of a robotic seal against the table to disprove any need for morality here).

There was an outpouring of support for the Hitchbot, but it was far from universal, and one can argue that that outpouring is only to do with what Professor Sharkey describes as “our in-built anthropomorphism”; akin to how many of us name and grow attached to our cars, there is this idea that if we spend lots of time with a robot (or if indeed that robot closely resembles a human), we would grow an emotional attachment that is perhaps illogical. The robots, as such, aren’t actually alive – it is our humanity, and tendency to grow attached to things, that gives us a perception that they are alive.

“fascinated at how far technology has come”

Nowadays, one might argue that this is not a particular issue. We are not in Futurama or Transformers – robots are not here, there and everywhere, nor are they central parts of our everyday lives that we cannot avoid interacting with. Such ethical considerations right now don not often plague us, and, in the unlikely event that we do encounter a passing Hitchbot, most of us would likely be fascinated at how far technology has come, as opposed to whether we rip it apart.

But that is not to say that, in the future, things will not change.

With the development of artificial intelligence (AI), there may come a time where perhaps robots can truly be considered ‘alive’. Khan Academy lists 7 academically sourced criteria for life,  them being a capacity for homeostasis; the formation of some sort of hierarchy; the ability to grow; to reproduce; to use energy; to respond to stimuli and to adapt to their environment. At present, it is evident that robots are lacking in a number of these areas (even if we consider the robotic ‘equivalents’ of some of these criteria, e.g. electricity instead of energy), but, if AI was to reach a stage where the free thought of robots was a possibility, then suddenly the status of robots as being truly ‘alive’ becomes a potential reality.

Still, we are a long way off yet, and it does seem as if attitudes towards AI aren’t necessarily swinging in the free-thinking robot direction. Professor Sharkey voices concerns about the potential weaponisation of AI, and the late, great Stephen Hawking warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race”. It is a grim outlook on the world, but one that highlights that the reality of robotic development is away from a population of Hitchbots and more towards relentless robotic killing machines, which organisations such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are attempting to combat.

The most critical debate at the moment, it seems, is not the one surrounding whether or not we can murder robots – it is whether or not we are going to allow robots to murder us.

Joe Paternoster

Articles Used:

Featured image courtesy of Victory of the People  via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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