From Animal Rights to Machine Rights?

Well, I’ve been away a long time–many apologies.  I had no idea things would get so busy this year.  Let’s hope I can keep my New Year’s Resolution of getting a couple posts a week up here…even if they’re short!  Many thanks to Mike for the great redesign. 

Tis the season for toys, and I’m intrigued by a Japanese innovation that has gotten some interesting press coverage in the U.S. recently.  The PARO “Seal-Type Mental Commit Robot” is designed to look and act like a white baby seal.   Its designer claims that

Mental Commitment Robots are designed to provide 3 types of effects: psychological, such as relaxation and motivation, physiological, such as improvement in vital signs, and social effects such as instigating communication among inpatients and caregivers.  

Videos and studies document the seal’s positive effects in improving the mood of the chronically lonely.

Commenting in the Boston Globe, Sherry Turkle wonders if the innovation is just a sophisticated excuse for neglect:

Human beings are ”cheap dates,” vulnerable to being smitten by machines that seem to express emotions, according to Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT. Among the elderly, she said, that vulnerability is exploited when machines substitute for much-needed human interaction.

Commenters at a recent blog post on the Paro appear divided, with some repelled by the idea of a robot substituting for real animals, and others noting forcefully the practical need for this type of innovation.

Which brings me, finally, to a legal point.  There have recently been some fascinating discussions of animal rights in the law.  Even one of the leaders in the movement, Steven Wise, concedes that it might be unwise to assign a full array of rights to “taxonomically and evolutionarily remote animals, whose behavior scarcely resembles ours and who may lack all consciousness and be nothing but living stimulus-response machines.”  But the Paro is not even a living “stimulus-response machine,” and still seems to provoke extraordinary emotional responses.  Is there a rationale for protecting it under animal rights law?  Would such protection amount to a symbolic extension of existing anti-cruelty or animal welfare laws?  Or tragically miss the point of them?

PS: A robot pet may be much better than this

One thought on “From Animal Rights to Machine Rights?

  1. Hi,
    I’m thinking on writing an essay on this topic. I think this topic could be a basis for a fascinating philosophical discussion. When I was researching for a animal-rights essay, I was startled by the lack of arguments on the side of animal rights proponents. And those that seemed reasonable enough to be considered, could be actually applied on the area of “machine rights”, which I find very amusing :-)

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