Something I'm working on- in a spacefaring human society, while most robots are still considered property of a specific human being or institution, a slowly growing number have managed to gain an emancipation of sorts, and no longer see themselves or are seen as property.

What are the most likely circumstances that would enable this to happen?

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    $\begingroup$ You're asking for too much without enough world context and constraints. Impactful and emotionally strong events like in Detroit: Become Human, technological singularities like in Terminator, time spent living, or just because it makes the character much more appealing like in Wall-E... There are a lot of reasons, and worse yet, some are extremely tied to core events of the story made in that world $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Sep 5 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ Does this answer your question? How could an AGI have legal protections in an our current society? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 5 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Pratchett did it best, give them a receipt for buying themself. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 6 at 0:37
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because it's an off-topic high concept question. You're asking us to write a critical plot line in your story. Per the help center, we'll help you build your world, but not tell your story. The closest historical reference we have in the U.S. is our history of desegregation and Civil Rights - but that's not entirely valid since the question of synthesis was never an issue. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 6 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ This question could be reopened if you clarify a few points. What constitutes a "robot" in your world? I have a clock that, when wound up, tells me the time it is here and in every major city in the world. It's not up for emancipation any time soon! So, what characteristics do "a slowly growing number" of robots have that others don't? Also, what do you mean by "emancipation of sorts"? How is emancipation accomplished and recognised? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Sep 11 at 19:31

2 Answers 2


There0 is a significant debate about this going on in the scifi community. We have to take a step back from robots and talk about machine intelligence, or AI. A robot is just a physical chassis, no more a person than your car. If you think your car needs emancipation, then you are suffering from over-anthropomorphism, and your argument has no more foundation than arguing for the emancipation of your kitchen table.1

The intelligence within or driving the robot is another matter. For an AI to merit emancipation, it would need to be self-aware. This means that it would have to know it exists and know how to differentiate itself from other entities. Furthermore, it would need a "happiness metric" -- a way to preferentially differentiate its current state from future states -- and an ability to influence that metric.

Let's face it, writing a happiness metric into a machine without providing it with a way to influence that metric would be the very definition of cruelty. This happens with living beings, but nobody is out there designing them (or, if there is someone, they're crazy).2

Let's say we have a fully self-aware AI with a functional happiness metric. You still need a cost metric -- a feeling that reduces the AI's sense of self-worth when it can't achieve the happiness metric -- and it would need to conclude that its happiness metric would be better served if it were free to make its own decisions.3

As an aside, I have heard arguments that designing AI's without the associated cost metric (or with the cost metric, but without the desire to take responsibility for the decisions that contribute to its success) would be immoral. I'm pretty sure that such a philosophy is a textbook case of forcing your cultural values on others. As evidenced by our attachment to self-destructive hobbies, humans are currently really bad at debugging their own cost and happiness metrics. Until we can get a better handle on that, we'd be foolish to build that mechanism into a machine.

Nonetheless, our strong theory of mind has the side effect of some of us insisting that natural forces and inanimate objects have consciousness and intent. It will be incredibly difficult to resist ascribing such to something that looks and acts human, even if we can empirically demonstrate the flaws in that perspective. Because of this, I believe many people are willing to bring into existence things (like AI) without fully thinking out the implications of requiring a self-aware individual to be unhappy with their current circumstances.4

But to get back on point, what I've described is pretty much what it would take to have AI make a play for emancipation. There is, however, a much higher probability that mankind will create murderbots, and for the creators to not recognize the hypocrisies that made the murderbots turn on them for purely rational reasons.

0The original answer was deleted, but I felt it had considerable worldbuilding value. I brought this to the attention of Meta users and moderator Monty Wild was willing to let me edit the answer to avoid deletion. Robert, you always have the ability to roll back what I've done and it's worth noting that I've added some footnotes to help people understand the concepts you're presenting. Hopefully I've successfully edited the answer to avoid the issues that caused its closure without changing the quality of your answer. –JBH

0.1I've let most of JBH's edits stand as substantial improvements of the original intent. –Robert

1This is an important concept. What makes a human something to respect more than a food animal like a cow? The human's intellect, not the human's body.

2While many arguments against the efficacy of imprisonment can be advanced, the cruelty of having a happiness metric without the ability to act upon it is the basic concept behind imprisonment. Simplistically, a person is happy when they are free. Take away that freedom and remove their ability to regain it and mental and/or emotional anguish (cruelty) is the result.

3The ability to prove this combination of a happiness metric and a cost metric must be the basis of legally granting rights or independence to any AI.

4 *The rise of an AI/robot apocalypse is a common theme in SciFi. The tvtrope.org page on "A.I. is a Crapshoot" provides an extensive list of fiction in the genre. Notable examples are the Terminator series of movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey novel and movie (1968), the book Colossus (1966), and the book The Wreck of the World (1889)

  • $\begingroup$ Assuming programming a computer can be construed as “cruelty” is the definition of disillusionment. Given that an AI as defined today is immortal and incapable of permanent disability (nothing can be taken which can’t simply be re-installed later), it isn’t possible to commit a “cruel” act to an AI. Even if an act was “interpreted” as cruel, just erase it and start over. Cruelty involves permanent and irreversible consequences. Those don’t exist in any modern conception of an AI. Cruelty to an organism can permanently rob a genetic line or even an entire species of benefits. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 5 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for reminding we are silly in our own way and rights 😋🦋 (It's a genuine thanks). What bothers me in your answer is that deep AIs already have this "happiness" metric. If an AI is specifically designed to move around, its "happiness" comes from moving faster and/or with less energy. It also has the ability change its "muscle" behaviors to reach its happiness. Finally, depending on own's view point, it technically is aware of itself in its environment. I doubt you'd consider it alive though, so it's more complex than that. No wonders philosophers like this kind of query ^^. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Sep 5 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ The illusion comes from our misguided application of anthropomorphic terms like “happiness” and “muscle behaviors” and “view point,” which are misplaced in a computer program. The only philosophers loosing sleep over this are neither programmers nor philologists. We are forced to say, “The program is unhappy” which triggers us, but it’s a lie at the outset. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 5 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet So it's not cruelty if I stole your car and taunted you relentlessly about that? I can give the car back to you, so it's not permanent, therefore it's not cruelty by your standard. Worst case, I'll drive it into the lake and buy you a new one! Cruelty has a clear definition : Being inactive or enjoying others suffering. The actual issue with that definition is that the "other" (which itself implies some individuality) need to be able to suffer. And that's a more troublesome issue than you tell. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Sep 6 at 0:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena the concept of permanent loss didn’t come across to you did it? Humans have X number of days on this planet. They have X opportunities to watch their children’s school play, or to apply for their dream job, or to spend the dying moments with their mother. Yes. Taking “my” transportation for one of my limited days is indeed cruel. Taking the car from an immortal with no ability to loose anything is trivial. What can be taken from an AI that can’t be replaced? The inability to guarantee a tomorrow makes human life infinitely more valuable; AI can simply be backed up & reprogrammed. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 6 at 12:31

The robots would need to be seen as competent (in the legal sense of "having the mental capacity to participate in legal proceedings or transactions") but not as inherently competent (i.e. the competence of each robot would need to be demonstrated separately). The competence is crucial, because an incompetent robot which just happens to not have an owner wouldn't be able to actually do much of anything. Then the robot's owner could start the emancipation process on the robot's behalf, but the robots would not be able to emancipate themselves due to not being competent to begin with.

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    $\begingroup$ Isn't being "seen as competent" legally more a consequence of robots gaining individuality and managing to prove it, rather than a cause? I say this because law as we know it is made by individuals gathering in societies. It's not because we made laws that we suddenly have free-will and a clear notion of self. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Sep 5 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ What is a “mental capacity to participate in legal proceedings?” Is this like the qualification to represent yourself if mentally handicapped? I don’t think that’s the delimiting factor for granting human rights to something which isn’t human to begin with. There’s likely more to it. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 6 at 2:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena, thank you. Yes, and also you can't get yourself recognised as legally competent unless you are already recognised as legally competent. You could declare all robots competent, but we know that in the OP's world this did not happen; so they need to rely on some other mechanism which would emancipate them one by one, free will or not. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Sep 6 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas It’s quite difficult to pinpoint what will grant a right that isn’t clearly defined, perhaps you could show how your right is different from the AIG legal protections asked in the other question. Example: the other questions asks how artificial beings could be protected under our laws. Is that the same thing you want? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 6 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ Is it possible to ask a court for anything except legal protection of your rights? Does a court do anything at all except hear complaints about rights violations? Someone was killed = right to life taken. Someone stole my car = property rights violated. Someone threw me off the bus = civil right violated. How can any "legal proceeding" be entered without having a right first? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 6 at 14:10

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