Personhood for Non-Humans (including Artificial Agents)

As these articles in recent issues of the New York Times (here and here) and the holding of the Personhood Beyond the Human conference indicate, personhood for non-humans is a live issue, both philosophical and legal. As I noted during the Concurring Opinions online symposium on my book A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents last year, (an additional link to discussions is here) this includes personhood for artificial agents. Rather than repeat the arguments I made during that symposium, let me just quote–self-indulgently, at a little length–from the conclusion of my book:

The most salutary effect of our discussions thus far on the possibility of personhood for artificial agents might have been to point out the conceptual difficulties in ascriptions of personhood—especially acute in accounts of personhood based on psychological characteristics that might give us both too many persons and too few—and its parasitism on our social needs. The grounding of the person in social needs and legal responsibilities suggests personhood is socially determined, its supposed essence nominal, subject to revision in light of different usages of person. Recognizing personhood may consist of a set of customs and practices, and so while paradigmatic conceptions of persons are based on human beings…the various connections of the concept of person with legal roles concede personhood is a matter of interpretation of the entities in question, explicitly dependent on our relationships and interactions with them.

Personhood thus emerges as a relational, organizing concept that reflects a common form of life and common felt need. For artificial agents to be become legal persons, a crucial determinant would be the formation of genuinely interesting relationships, both social and economic, for it is the complexity of the agent’s relational interactions that will be of crucial importance.

Personhood is a status marker of a class of agents we, as a species, are interested in and care about. Such recognition is a function of a rich enough social organization that demands such discourse as a cohesive presence and something that enables us to make the most sense of our fellow beings. Beings that do not possess the capacities to enter into a sufficiently complex set of social relationships are unlikely to be viewed as moral or legal persons by us. Perhaps when the ascription of second-order intentionality becomes a preferred interpretationist strategy in dealing with artificial agents, relationships will be more readily seen as forming between artificial agents and others and legal personhood is more likely to be assigned.

Fundamentally, the question of extending legal personality to a particular category of thing remains one of assessing its social importance….The evaluation of the need for legal protection for the entity in question is sensitive, then, to the needs of the community. The entity in question might interact with, and impinge on, social, political, and legal institutions in such a way that the only coherent understanding of its social role emerges by treating it as a person.

The question of legal personality suggests the candidate entity’s presence in our networks of legal and social meanings has attained a level of significance that demands reclassification. An entity is a viable candidate for legal personality in this sense if it fits within our networks of social, political, and economic relations in such a way it can coherently be a subject of legal rulings.

Thus, the real question is whether the scope and extent of artificial agent interactions have reached such a stage. Answers will reveal what we take to be valuable and useful in our future society as well, for we will be engaged in determining what roles artificial agents should be playing for us to be convinced the question of legal personality has become a live issue. Perhaps artificial agents can only become persons if they enter into social relationships that go beyond purely commercial agentlike relationships to genuinely personal relationships (like medical care robots or companion robots). And even in e-commerce settings, an important part of forming deeper commercial relationships will be whether trust will arise between human and artificial agents; users will need to be convinced “an agent is capable of reliably performing required tasks” and will pursue their interests rather than that of a third party.

Autopoietic legal theory, which emphasizes the circularity of legal concepts, suggests too, that artificial agents’ interactions will play a crucial role in the determination of legal personality….If it is a sufficient condition for personality that an entity engage in legal acts, then, an artificial agent participating in the formation of contracts becomes a candidate for legal personality by virtue of its participation in those transactions.

Personhood may be acquired in the form of capacities and sensibilities acquired through initiation into the traditions of thought and action embodied in language and culture; personhood may be result of the maturation of beings, whose attainment depends on the creation of an evolving intersubjectivity. Artificial agents may be more convincingly thought of as persons as their role within our lives increases and as we develop such intersubjectivity with them. As our experience with children shows, we slowly come to accept them as responsible human beings. Thus we might come to consider artificial agents as legal persons for reasons of expedience, while ascriptions of full moral personhood, independent legal personality, and responsibility might await the attainment of more sophisticated capacities on their part.


While artificial agents are not close to being regarded as moral persons, they are coherently becoming subjects of the intentional stance, and may be thought of as intentional agents. They take actions that they initiate, and their actions can be understood as originating in their own reasons. An artificial agent with the right sorts of capacities—most importantly, that of being an intentional system—would have a strong case for legal personality, a case made stronger by the richness of its relationships with us and by its behavioral patterns. There is no reason in principle that artificial agents could not attain such a status, given their current capacities and the arc of their continued development in the direction of increasing sophistication.

The discussion of contracting suggested the capabilities of artificial agents, doctrinal convenience and neatness, and the economic implications of various choices would all play a role in future determinations of the legal status of artificial agents. Such “system-level” concerns will continue to dominate for the near future. Attributes such as the practical ability to perform cognitive tasks, the ability to control money, and considerations such as cost benefit analysis, will further influence the decision whether to accord legal personality to artificial agents. Such cost-benefit analysis will need to pay attention to whether agents’ principals will have enough economic incentive to use artificial agents in an increasing array of transactions that grant agents more financial and decision-making responsibility, whether principals will be able, both technically and economically, to grant agents adequate capital assets to be full economic and legal players in tomorrow’s marketplaces, whether the use of such artificial agents will require the establishment of special registers or the taking out of insurance to cover losses arising from malfunction in contractual settings, and even the peculiar and specialized kinds and costs of litigation that the use of artificial agents will involve. Factors such as efficient risk allocation, whether it is necessary to introduce personality in order to explain all relevant phenomena, and whether alternative explanations gel better with existing theory, will also carry considerable legal weight in deliberations over personhood. Most fundamentally, such an analysis will evaluate the transaction costs and economic benefits of introducing artificial agents as full legal players in a sphere not used to an explicit acknowledgment of their role.

Many purely technical issues remain unresolved as yet….Economic considerations might ultimately be the most important in any decision whether to accord artificial agents with legal personality. Seldom is a law proposed today in an advanced democracy without some semblance of a utilitarian argument that its projected benefits would outweigh its estimated costs. As the range and nature of electronic commerce transactions handled by artificial agents grows and diversifies, these considerations will increasingly come into play. Our discussion of the contractual liability implications of the agency law approach to the contracting problem was a partial example of such an analysis.

Whatever the resolution of the arguments considered above, the issue of legal personality for artificial agents may not come ready-formed into the courts, or the courts may be unable or unwilling to do more than take a piecemeal approach, as in the case of extending constitutional protections to corporations. Rather, a system for granting legal personality may need to be set out by legislatures, perhaps through a registration system or “Turing register,”.

A final note on these entities that challenge us by their advancing presence in our midst. Philosophical discussions on personal identity often take recourse in the pragmatic notion that ascriptions of personal identity to human beings are of most importance in a social structure where that concept plays the important legal role of determining responsibility and agency. We ascribe a physical and psychological coherence to a rapidly changing object, the human being, because otherwise very little social interaction would make sense. Similarly, it is unlikely that, in a future society where artificial agents wield significant amounts of executive power, anything would be gained by continuing to deny them legal personality. At best it would be a chauvinistic preservation of a special status for biological creatures like us. If we fall back repeatedly on making claims about human uniqueness and the singularity of the human mind and moral sense in a naturalistic world order, then we might justly be accused of being an “autistic” species, unable to comprehend the minds of other types of beings.

Note: Citations removed above.

The Personhood Beyond the Human Conference

This weekend (Dec 7-8) I am attending the Personhood Beyond the Human conference at Yale University. Here is a description of the conference’s agenda:

The event will focus on personhood for nonhuman animals, including great apes, cetaceans, and elephants, and will explore the evolving notions of personhood by analyzing them through the frameworks of neuroscience, behavioral science, philosophy, ethics, and law….Special consideration will be given to discussions of nonhuman animal personhood, both in terms of understanding the history, science, and philosophy behind personhood, and ways to protect animal interests through the establishment of legal precedents and by increasing public awareness.

I will be speaking on Sunday afternoon. Here is an abstract for my talk:

Personhood for Artificial Agents: What it teaches us about animals’ rights

For the past few years, I have presented arguments based on my book, A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, which suggest that legal and perhaps even moral and metaphysical personhood for artificial agents is not a conceptual impossibility. In some cases, a form of dependent legal personality might even be possible in today’s legal frameworks for such entities. As I have presented these arguments, I have encountered many objections to them.In this talk, I will examine some of these objections as they have taught me a great deal about how personhood for artificial agents is relevant to the question of human beings’ relationships with animals. I will conclude with the claims that a) advocating personhood for artificial agents should not be viewed as an anti-humanistic perspective and b) rather, it should allow us to assess the question of animals’ rights more sympathetically. Bio

Steven Wise, the  most prominent animal rights lawyer in the US, will be speaking today and sharing some rather interesting news about some very important lawsuits filed by his organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project, on behalf of great apes’, arguing for their legal personhood. (Some information can  be found here, and there is heaps more at the website obviously.)

If you are in the area, do stop on by.

That Beehive in Your Head? That’s Just the Net Calling

Like many users of the Internet I suffer terribly from net-induced attention deficit disorder, that terrible affliction that causes one to ceaselessly click on ‘Check Mail’ buttons, switch between a dozen tabs, log-in-log-out, reload, and perhaps worst of all, seek my machine immediately upon waking in the mornings. My distraction isn’t unique, but it has its own particular flavors: I find myself visiting the same sites far too often, I have too many email accounts,I can only use one social media ‘tool’ at a time. What makes this deficit disorder intolerable is that I am simultaneously resentful and afflicted: I rage and rage against its hold on me, resolve to cut myself loose, but all too soon, stumble back to the keyboard, defeated.

I have tried many strategies for partial or total withdrawal: timed writing periods (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour); eight-hour fasts (I pulled off several of these in 2009, when I was working on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents; to date, this remains my most successful, if not repeated since, intervention; since then, somehow, it has been all too easy to convince myself that when I work, I should stay online because, you know, I might need to ‘look something up’); weekend sabbaths (only accomplished once, when I logged off on a Friday night, and logged back on on Sunday morning); evening abstentions (i.e., logging off at the end of a workday and not logging back on when I reached home). None of these strategies has survived, despite each one of them bringing succor of a sort.

The effect of this distraction on me is not dissimilar to that experienced by other sufferers: I sometimes feel a beehive has taken up residence in my cranium; my attention span is limited to ludicrously short periods; my reading skills have suffered; writing, always a painful and onerous task, has become even more so. Because of the failure to attend to tasks at hand, my to-do, to-read, to-write, to-attend-to lists grow longer and cast ever more accusing glances my way. Worse, their steadily increasing stature ensures that picking a starting point from any of them becomes a task fraught with ever-greater anxiety: as I begin one task, I become aware that several others are crying out for my attention, causing me to either hurry through the one I have started, or worse, to abandon it, and take up something else.

I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction. But there seems something terribly banal about all of this: an inability to attend to that which is difficult and anxiety-causing is hardly a novel disease. Procrastination has been around ever since the Good Lord took all of six (or was it seven?) days to get on with creating the world. And yet, that doesn’t seem to reduce any of its personal urgency. I haven’t given up hope yet, especially as more drastic solutions offer themselves: ten-day meditation retreats, for instance. If I can stop checking email for long enough, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Note: In case you were wondering, yes, even as I wrote this post, I interrupted myself several times: to check email, switch tabs, and make myself a cup of tea. The last-mentioned brought some calming relief.

We Robot 2012 – Day One

I am posting today from the University of Miami Law School, which is staging the We Robot 2012 conference. I presented and discussed Patrick Hubbard’s (University of South Carolina Law School) Regulation of Liability for Risks of Physical Injury From “Sophisticated Robots”. Presenting someone else’s work presents a difficult challenge; thanks to being an academic I have perfected the dark arts of bullshitting about my own work but doing so about someone else’s work is far more difficult.  I tried my best to present Patrick’s work as comprehensively and fairly as possible and to raise some questions that could spur on some discussion. (I will place the slides online very soon so you can see what I got up to.)

One of the points I raised in response to Patrick’s claim that robots that displayed ’emergent behavior’ would occasion changes in tort doctrine was: How should we understand such emergence? Might we need to see if robots, for instance, displayed  stability, homeostasis and evolvability–all often held to be features of living systems, paradigmatic examples of entities that display emergent behavior. Would robots be judged to display emergent behavior if it was not just a function of its parts but also of the holistic and relational properties of the system. I also asked Patrick how the law should understand autonomy given that some philosophical definitions of autonomy–like Kant’s for instance–would rule out some humans as being autonomous. (Earlier in the morning during discussions in another talk, I suggested another related benchmark that could be useful: Draw upon the suggestion made in Daniel Dennett’s The Case for Rorts that robots  could be viewed as intentional agents when we trust robots as authorities in reporting on their inner states, when its programmers and designers  lose epistemic hegemony.) An interesting section of the discussion that followed my presentation centered on how useful analogizing robots to animals or children or other kinds of entities was likely to be, and if useful, which analogies could work best. (This kind of analogizing was done in Chapter 4 of A Legal Theory of Autonomous Artificial Agents.)

Earlier in the day in discussing automated law enforcement–perhaps done by fleets of Robocops–I was glad to note that one of its positive outcomes was highlighted: that such automation could bring about a reduction of bias in law enforcement. In my comment following the talk, I noted that a fleet of Robocops aware of the Fourth Amendment might be be very welcome news for all those who were the targets of the almost seven hundred thousand Stop-n-Frisk searches in New York City.

As was noted in discussions in the morning, some common threads have already emerged: the suggestion that robots are ‘just tools,’ (which I continue to find bizarre), the not-so-clear distinction–and reliance on–true and apparent autonomy, the concerns about the need to avoid ‘projecting’ human will and agency onto robots and treating them like people (i.e., that we need to avoid the so-called ‘android fallacy.’) I personally don’t think warnings about the android fallacy are very useful; contemporary robots are not sophisticated enough to be people and there is no impossibility proof against them being sophisticated enough to be persons in the future.

Hopefully, I will have another–much more detailed–report from this very interesting and wonderfully well-organized conference tomorrow. (I really haven’t done justice to the rich discussions and presentations yet; for that I need a little more time.)

Kraftwerk Makes Us Tell The Truth: We Are The Robots?

Kraftwerk’s The Robots has been an electro-pop classic ever since its release–on Kraftwerk’s classic seventh album, The Man-Machinein 1978. My brother and I discovered Kraftwerk at roughly the same time, and, like many other schoolboys, quickly became entranced by its revolutionary blend of synthesizers, vocoders, and electronic percussion.  Some thirty years on, I still get a kick out of strapping on the earphones for The Robots (and turning up the volume to eleven); I don’t dance to it but the temptation never quite goes away. (I’ve only seen The Robots  performed live once, when I saw Kraftwerk at Sydney’s Enmore Theater in January 2003.)

Besides triggering the urge to flop around in slightly demented fashion, there are two juvenile fantasies of mine that The Robots gives comfort and succor to: One, as as part of a grand book tour for A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, I would make a presentation centered on the book that would feature The Robots playing in the background as I walked on stage (I don’t need smoke machines or lasers). And, wouldn’t it pretty nifty if I could get an e-book version that would play The Robots when the book file was first opened? Trust me, I spend time thinking about this stuff.

(In the summer of 2006, I played The Robots for Brooklyn high-school students at the conclusion of a summer ‘camp’ that had introduced them to, among other things, robotics and cryptography. I had  taught the cryptography track but thought the young folks that had worked on robotics kits would appreciate both the track and the fact that computers and music were connected in ways other than downloading. I’m not sure it went down all that well; most of the students in attendance found the sound perplexing, so at least for that generation, or that demographic, the track had not aged well nor come across as relevant.)

There are many good versions of The Robots out there; this soundboard-recording from a Birmingham (UK) concert on 15 July 1991, from the Dynamo Deutschland CDs is particularly good. The Russian lines “Я твой слуга” (Ya tvoi sluga, I’m your servant) and “Я твой работник” (Ya tvoi rabotnik, I’m your worker) come across particularly clearly; the lyrics in this live version are also slightly, interestingly, different from the standard lyrics. (Since this is a soundboard recording there are also some irritating sections where concert-goers can be heard talking!)

The most memorable part of this live track are the sing-along chants, between 1:55 and 2:15, for the chorus “We are the Robots”. In performing the sing-along so vigorously, the Birmingham concert-goers perhaps make two kinds of statements: one, an acknowledgement, in this hyper-corporatized and industrialized age, of the enduring relevance of the two lines in Russian quoted above; and second, a vocalized bridging of the gap between the robots and themselves, perhaps even a joining of communities. The former is appropriately disturbing, but the latter at least can be optimistically read as a denial of difference. (As I often sought to remind my interlocutors during the recent online symposium on my book, we are often more like robots than we might imagine.)

Report on Concurring Opinions Symposium on Artificial Agents – II

Today, I’m continuing my wrap-up of the Concurring Opinions online symposium on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents. I’ll be noting below the various responses to the book and point to my responses to them (Part I of this wrap-up was posted yesterday).

While almost all respondents seem to have seriously engaged with the book’s analysis, Ryan Calo wrote a disappointingly unengaged, and at times, patronizing post that ostensibly focused on the book’s methodological adoption of the intentional stance; it seemed to suggest that all we were doing was primitive anthropomorphizing. This was a pretty comprehensive misread of the book’s argument, so I struggled to find anything to say in response. Calo also said he didn’t know whether an autonomous robot was like a hammer or not; this was a bizarre admission coming from someone that is concerned with the legal implications of robotics. I noted in one of my responses that figuring out the answer to that question can be aided by some intuition-tickling questions (Like: Would NASA send a hammer to explore Mars? Can hammers drive?). Calo’s follow-up post to my comment on his post was roughly along the lines of “We don’t know what to do with artificial agents.” Well, yes, but I thought the point was to evaluate the attempt currently mounted in our book? I didn’t quite understand the point of Calo’s responses: that we don’t have a comprehensive theory for artificial agents i.e., the book’s title is misleading? I could be persuaded into mounting a guilty plea for that. But the point of the book was to indicate how existing doctrines could be so suitably modified to start accommodating artificial agents- that is how a legal theory will be built up in a common law system.

Deborah DeMott (Duke) whose writings on the common law doctrines of agency were very useful in our analysis in the book offered a very good analysis of our attempts to apply that doctrine to artificial agents. While DeMott disagreed with the exactness of the fit, she seemed not to think that it was completely off-base (she certainly found our attempt “lively and ingenious”!); in my response I attempted to clarify and defend some of our reasons for why we thought agency doctrine would work with artificial agents.

Ken Anderson (American University, Volokh Conspiracy) then discussed our treatment of intentionality and deployment of the intentional stance, and queried whether we intended to use the intentional stance merely as a heuristic device or whether we were, in fact, making a broader claim for intentionality in general. In my response I noted that we wanted to do both: use it as a methodological stance, and in doing so, also point an investigative lens at our understanding of intentionality in general. Ken’s reaction was very positive; he thought the book had hit a “sweet spot” in not being excessively pie-in-the-sky while offering serious doctrinal recommendations.

Ian Kerr (Ottawa), in his response, didn’t feel the book went far enough in suggesting a workable theory for artificial agents; if I understood Ian correctly, his central complaint was that the theory relied too much on older legal categories and doctrines and that artificial agents might need an entirely new set of legal frameworks. But Ian also felt the slow and steady march of the common law was the best way to handle the challenges posed by artificial agents. So, interestingly enough, I agree with Ian; and I think Ian should be less dissatisfied than he is; our book is  merely the first attempt to try and leverage the common law to make these steps to work towards a more comprehensive theory. In fact, given rapid developments in artificial agents, the law is largely going to be playing catchup more than anything else.

Andrew Sutter then wrote a critical, rich response, one that took aim at the book’s rhetoric, its methodology, and its philosophical stance. I greatly enjoyed my jousting with Andrew during this symposium, and my response to his post–and to his subsequent comments–in which I attempted to clarify my philosophical stance and presuppositions, will show that.

Harry Surden (Colorado) wrote a very good post on two understanding of artificial intelligence’s objectives–intelligence as the replication of human cognitive capacities by either replicating human methods of achieving them or via simulations that utilize other techniques–and how these could or would be crucial in the legal response to its achievements. My response to Surden acknowledged the importance of these distinctions and noted that this should also cause us to think about how we often ascribe human cognition a certain standing that arises largely because of a lack of understanding of its principles. (This also provoked an interesting discussion with AJ Sutter.)

Andrea Matwyshyn wrote an excellent, seriously engaged post that took head-on, the fairly detailed and intricate arguments of Chapter 2 (where we offer a solution for the so-called contracting problem by offering an argument that artificial agents be considered legal agents of their users). My response to Matwyshyn acknowledged the force of her various critical points while trying to expand and elaborate the economic incentivizing motivation for our claim that artificial agents should be considered as non-identical with their creators and/or deployers.

Once again, I am grateful to Frank Pasquale and the folks over at Concurring Opinions for staging the symposium and to all the participants for their responses.

Report on Concurring Opinions Symposium on Artificial Agents – I

The Concurring Opinions online symposium on my recently-released book A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents (University of Michigan Press, 2011) wrapped up yesterday. The respondents to the book blogged on it from Tuesday till Thursday last week; from Friday till Monday I spent most of my time putting together responses to the excellent responses offered by the participants; I also replied to comments made by blog readers (two of whom, Patrick S. O’Donnell and AJ Sutter, provided very thoughtful and critical commentary).

Frank Pasquale (Seton Hall) organized the symposium and announced it on the blog on February 2nd.  The symposium was kicked off by Sonia Katyal (Fordham) who responded to the book’s argument for legal personhood for artificial agents. While positive in her response, Katyal was curious about whether a strong enough case for legal personhood had been made yet (compared to the historical case for corporations for instance). (This was useful in helping me think about how such a legal-empirical case could be made for artificial agents’ legal personhood, something I alluded to in my response.)

James Grimmelmann (New York Law School) then followed up with a post that addressed the law’s response to complex systems and pointed out that responding to the presence of artificial agents could or would draw upon some of those patterns of response. (Sonia and James had started things a little early so my introductory post on artificial agents showed up after theirs!) James also wrote a follow-up to his first piece, which further elaborated on some of law’s strategies for dealing with complexity, pointing out the grant of personhood was not inevitable. These posts were very useful in illustrating the law’s pragmatic stance towards the presence of complex systems. (Danielle Citron (Maryland), incidentally, wrote a reminder of how automated decision making has been causing a headache for administrative law; in the original version of our book we had begun work on a chapter that addressed this but left it on the cutting floor; it would be good to resurrect that at some point.)

Lawrence Solum (Georgetown and Illinois), who has been writing at the intersection of philosophy and law for many years, then wrote a post suggesting that some dimensions of the problem of artificial agents’ legal personhood could be illustrated by a thought experiment involving zombies.  (I drew upon this thought experiment with another one of my own: how would we respond to extraterrestrials that petitioned for legal personhood?)

Frank Pasquale then pointed out how bots were being used for political campaigning and could be said to be contributing to political speech; this was really quite a provocative and fascinating post and I regret not having addressed it over at CO in my responses. I will do so soon here.

Ugo Pagallo (Georgetown and Turin), staying with the legal personhood theme, then questioned several aspects of our personhood argument, (while agreeing with our agency analysis in earlier parts of the book). In my response to Ugo, I suggested we were in greater argument than it might have originally seemed. Ramesh Subramanian (Yale ISP and Quinnipiac), meanwhile, took the argument for legal personhood seriously, and wondered more broadly about what some of its futuristic implications could be.

I will have another post tomorrow with summaries and descriptions of the various responses and the discussions that followed. This was an exhausting and invigorating experience in more ways than one.