Artificial Agents and the Law: Legal Personhood in Good Time

The Concurring Opinions online symposium on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents is under way, and most respondents thus far are taking on the speculative portion of the book (where we suggest that legal personhood for autonomous artificial is philosophically and legally coherent and might be advanced in the future). The incremental arguments constructed in Chapters 2 and 3 for considering artificial agents as legal agents for the purposes of contracting and knowledge attribution have not yet been taken on. Sometimes, as a result, it has seemed that we are suggesting a far greater change to existing legal doctrines than the modest changes we actually do suggest. Those modest changes could, admittedly, go on to have widespread ramifications, but still, for the time being, that’s all we do.

I’m not surprised that most respondents to the book thus far have chosen to concentrate on the ‘sexier’ argument in Chapter 5. In any case, these comments are very thoughtful and are thought-provoking and as a result they have already resulted in some very interesting discussion. Indeed, some of the objections raised are going to require some very careful responses from my side.

Still, the concentration on the legal personhood aspect of the doctrine we suggest might result in one confusion being created: that in this book we are advocating personhood for artificial agents. Not just legal personhood, but in fact personhood tout court. This is especially ironic as we deliberately have chosen the most incremental changes in doctrine possible in keeping with law’s generally conservative treatment of proposed changes to legal doctrine.

Here is what we say in the introduction about the argument for legal personhood:

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In Chapter 5, we explore the potential for according sophisticated artificial agents with legal personality. In order to provide a discursive framework, we distinguish between dependent and independent legal persons. We conclude that the conditions for each kind of legal personality could, in principle, be met by artificial agents in the right circumstances. [emphasis added] We suggest objections to such a status for them are based on a combination of human chauvinism and a misunderstanding of the notion of a legal person [more often than not, this is the conflation of “human” with “legal person”]. We note the result-oriented nature of the jurisprudence surrounding legal personality, and surmise legal personality for artificial agents will follow on their attaining a sufficiently rich and complex positioning within our network of social and economic relationships. The question of legal personality for artificial agents will be informed by a variety of pragmatic, philosophical and extra-legal concepts; philosophically unfounded chauvinism about human uniqueness should not and would not play a significant role in such deliberations.

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The “result-oriented nature of the jurisprudence surrounding legal personality” is actually such as to suggest that artificial agents might even be considered legal persons for the purposes of contracting now. But for the time being, I think, we can get the same outcomes just by treating them as legal agents without personhood. Which is why we advocate that change first, and suggest we wait till they attain “a sufficiently rich and complex positioning within our network of social and economic relationships.”

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