Legal Persons.

Sounds awkward.
Is awkward, potentially.
The European parliament is apparently considering declaring robots with AI legal persons1.
Thinking my way around this.

Corporations were declared legal persons generations ago.
According to Wikipedia, in 1886.
Yet we still have problems with the concept.
Making the engines of capitalism into legal persons may be the root of the ‘them’ in us.

The documentary, The Corporation, suggests that the difference between corporate ‘legal persons’ and the rest of us is that corporations have no moral or ethical conscious. They have rights but fewer obligations. To me, this ought to be yin and yang. If you have the right to something (like say a drivers license), you have the obligation to control it (and drive carefully).

As most things do, the state of being a corporation started innocently enough. A bunch of individuals got together and directed their interests (social, financial and/or personal) to a joint cause. When the cause got big enough, it took on a life (not a casual use of the word) of its own. It needed to be a separate entity, legally as well as autonomously. Since a collective decided what it would do, no one person was responsible, but the entity needed to be liable for its actions.

Controversy has arisen with modern corporations. Some have polluted our environment. Others taken advantage of people in developing nations for cheap labour. More recently, corporate support of political agendas2 calls into question the justice of a powerful, but unemotional entity, influencing human activities. The profit agenda of corporations is seen as their over-riding motivation, devoid of compassion.

Starting to sound scarily like artificial intelligence? Powerful. Devoid of human emotion. Mission driven.

Before we go there, consider another aspect of legal personhood. Various governments have recently declared various animals as legal persons3. Making animals legal persons protects them from acts of violence and neglect. Previously, because animals were considered possessions, they could be treated in any way their owner saw fit. Our modern sensibilities want more humane treatment, so animals have become legal persons in some countries. This allows third parties to step in and defend them, if necessary.

And let’s not forget that there were times in history when various people didn’t have the same status as others. Not so long ago women were ‘allowed’ to own property and vote (rights of ‘personhood’). Throughout human history, various groups have been ‘freed’ from slavery by other groups (from Roman times to more recently), granting the freed rights of personhood.

Granting basic rights like protection from harm and freedom to chose to those who are deserving is a good thing. But dodging responsibility in the name of adhering to a mission like maximizing profits doesn’t seem right.

What of the personhood of AI’s? Will it protect them from harm or allow them to game the system?

The arguments before European parliament to declare AI’s legal persons are motivated by giving them responsibility. No one holds the wind responsible for felling a tree and crushing a car. We call that a natural disaster. However, if an AI miscalculates GPS coordinates and sends a lifesaving package to the wrong province, we do want to hold someone responsible, whether it’s the programmers, owners or contractors of the AI. This was part of the original philosophy of making corporations legal persons. If the outcome of their actions required someone taking responsibility, it should be the collective that directs the thing.

Back to AI. Yes, we want some kind of accountability for what AI’s can do. After all, we don’t expect a herd of random robots running around without reason. Someone will deploy them and give them an assignment. And if that assignment runs amok and does some kind of damage, whoever sent the AIs should be responsible, even if it’s a corporate legal person.

Do AI’s need protection? I can imagine a day, a few decades from now, when people will feel protective about some AI’s and concerned when other AI’s are not treated well. Maybe the AI’s are left out in the rain, or aren’t consulted about best practices in machine lubrication.

Many people fear AI’s. They see a day when the power of the AI could subvert us or turn off our life support for good, because we are purposeless. They might have the right to do so if they are legal persons. And decided we were less than legal persons.

I have great faith in humans to manage our creations and ensure our survival, but also to treat those around us properly. Sometimes, it takes a while to figure out what that is. Ask a woman or a minority group. We can be slow arriving at justice. Maybe an AI could help us with that.

1 Reported in this CBC article.

2 http://www.npr.org/2014/07/28/335288388/when-did-companies-become-people-excavating-the-legal-evolution

3 For a completely less than comprehensive look, here‘s a blog post I did.

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