Consider a society where the population includes a number of sentient androids, practically indistinguishable from humans in appearance. In practice, they are treated exactly like humans under most circumstances, with the exception that they are not legally considered as persons. One might not know whether someone is an android until they ask (which might be considered impolite), they cut them open (which is also impolite), or circumstances arise where they are requested to produce identity documents (which an android will not be able to do.)

Ideally, it should be possible for a human citizen to, say, have a friend who takes public transport to an office job in the cubicle next to them, and goes back home somewhere after work, but not know or care in particular whether this friend is a human or an android.

Inconveniences immediately arise: particularly obvious would be the problem that androids are legally not entities that may enter legal contracts*. In a generally well-meaning community, some sort of de facto standard or convention might suffice to keep things working as normal some of the time. For instance, an android may appear to have a job and be paid a salary for it, despite there existing no legally binding agreement referencing this employment, and being technically unprotected/unconstrained by the workplace regulations intended for humans. Everyone is happy so long as everyone plays along.

However, in the case where a contract is breached, it cannot be enforced. It might not be illegal to evict a rent-paying android without reason, because they are not technically a tenant. This would be unfair for the android, but is something from which the law would often protect a person. This question concerns the means with which a society might protect androids from abuse of a similar sort.

What mechanisms might be developed by a society such that androids reliably enjoy as many as possible of the privileges humans do, despite not being acknowledged by the law as such?

Perhaps, for instance, somehow making the aforementioned conventions enforceable, employing some social/market gymnastics such that violation of the would-be rights of an android always carries great enough cost to discourage exploitation? Alternatively, are there existing laws that may be appropriated/interpreted to this effect?

Clarification edit:

This worldbuild concerns a society in which androids are typically regarded as equals, and de facto share many/all of the rights of their human peers. However, as many comments and answers have pointed out, without (or even with) enforcement by written law, this tends to be an unstable condition in that it requires all of the members of the community to practice respect and kindness to maintain, but might be disrupted by just a few who seek to do so. The solution sought by this question are methods a society which has largely collectively agreed to protect androids as humans might adopt to discourage such disruptions.

* Forgive that I am extremely ignorant of the relevant topics. Should it be evident from the statements and examples given that I'm getting all this terribly wrong, please do inform me so that corrections may be made.

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    $\begingroup$ @F1Krazy if you stab it it does not bleed like a human. It is also not born like a human, so does not have a birth certificate like a human. Can't sign legally binding contracts like a human. I have indeed seen questions involving the problems of whether they should have rights, how these rights might be enforced by law, and how the process would look like writing those laws. None of those answer this question because here as a constraint the law is stated to remain unchanged. If a previous question indeed answers the present one, please do provide a link and mark this as a duplicate. $\endgroup$
    – user42460
    Sep 18, 2017 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ Your "androids" are called "slaves" in history; "speaking tools", "instrumenta vocalia", to use a Roman phrase. There is detailed, ample, massive, literature about the various slaveholding systems known in history; for example, during the history of ancient Rome slaves went from being assimilated to the tools of an artisan or farmer to being considered human beings like all other just with diminished rights. For example, you may want to begin with William Linn Westermann's Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity, Philadelphia, 1955. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 18, 2017 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ This is the scenario of P.K. Dick's book "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" immortalized as the movie "Blade Runner". $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Sep 18, 2017 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ Also a possible reference: Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Measure of a Man $\endgroup$
    – Shadur
    Sep 19, 2017 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ Closely related question: If true artificially intelligent robots could be built, would they be allowed human rights? $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Sep 19, 2017 at 12:07

11 Answers 11


Corporations are people in a sense.

Corporations can be owned by Trusts.

Trusts can have articles of incorporation that restrict what the Trust can do. They have people running them, but they must follow the rules of the articles of incorporation.

To create a self-owned Android, you create a legal device that gives the Android effective self-control over the Corporation/Trust that in turn owns the Android.

When the Android enters into a contract, it would actually be the Corporation doing so through an agent. While the Android cannot act as an agent of her own Corporation, the Corporation can hire human agents to rubber-stamp the actions of the Corporation and be the agent in question.

We can go as far as to make the system to control said Corporation cryptographically secure, with the keys stored within the Android itself. Throw in some wireless internet, and...

The Andoid wants to rent an apartment. First, she negotiates the terms with the landlord.

Then, they produce a rental agreement for "Storage", with all the terms required.

The Android uses the equivalent of Mechanical Turk to hire and get an agent of her Corporation. She issues a cryptographic order to said Corporation to order the agent of the Corporation to enter into the contract with the landlord.

All property she has she transfers to the Corporation, and it pays her bills.

The Corporation maintains large and growing insurance policy for the Android's well being. In the event the Android is damaged, the Corporation is authorized to sue the person or persons responsible (for destruction of Corporate policy). Using this strategy, you can make hurting an Android (or killing one) financially dangerous.

Such a legal instrument would probably scale with the assets and income of the Corporation. The exact details would vary with the specific legal system.

You could go further, and have multiple Androids bound to the same Corporation and maintaining control of different accounts within it. This would have some benefits, but also some legal risk (in that each Android would be liable for the Corporate actions triggered by other Androids in the Corporation).

Now, note that in most countries, Trusts have a limited lifetime, but it is often on the order of a century or more.

In order to set up such a Trust, you may have to find a human being who is willing to do so. And possibly in the legal system, Trusts created as part of a human being's will might have stronger legal protections.

Which leads to Androids (or Android families) paying humans who are about to die in exchange for them setting up a Trust to protect said Android's freedom. Such "high quality" Trusts would have a length of life (by which time you'd have to transfer to another Trust), and be of limited supply (as you require a human to die to set up a new one). Maybe Trusts set up by dying humans with no close heirs (descendants, spouses and ex-spouses) are even better...

That would explain why Androids might share Trusts (especially if not rich), some Androids would live Trust-to-Trust (using ones that have only a few years or months left, and scrounging for a new one all the time), while well off Androids might be the joint property of multiple Trusts in high quality juristictions.

Much of this is inspired by how Charles Stross's legal system in his post-human robot space opera hard science fiction works, where robots are stuck with human-era legal systems and have no power to change it. So they bend it and incorporate their own personhood.


Expanding on @Cam's Property rights section...

If androids do not have rights as people, then they are just objects which must be owned by people. In this case, the owner's human rights defend and define the android as valued property.

An object android cannot come into the world without being owned by its creator. That creator, in turn becomes the owner of anything the android creates, so future generation androids are still objects and are owned by their creator's owner.

Android owners are also responsible for the actions of their androids. If I leave my parking brake off and my car rolls down the street and damages another car, I cannot claim that the car did it. I, the car's owner am held legally responsible.

Similarly, it is my rights which are infringed upon when a contractually bound garage owner attempts to evict my car in breach of our contract.

In this world, an android can be created and sent out into the world by its owner to rent an apartment, hold a job and ride on public transport. When and if, legal action is taken against the android, its owner will be held responsible and/or benefit from the result of that legal action.

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    $\begingroup$ Damaging the emotional wellbeing of an android may carry similar consequences to vandalism or property damage. Making the punitive arrangements for such crimes equivalent to the sentences for similar crimes against humans would lead to the androids having rights by proxy. If that's taken far enough then they essentially get human rights as long as its seen as socially unacceptable to not pursue property damage claims. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Sep 18, 2017 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly. If we agree my android will do a job for you, and you renege on the deal, I take you to court for breach of contract. Over time, the rights and responsibilities of the androids' owners become those of the androids themselves (with the minor difference that destroying an android isn't murder; it's destruction of property). $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 17:28

Look to historical examples that are similar

Unfortunately, humans have shown us how they treat people that aren't, legally, people. Your androids would be in a similar situation to what persons of color faced in several times and places in human history. Some examples include Apartheid, the American post-Civil War racism, American laws that prevented Asian Americans from being citizens, or American treatment of American Indians. (Many other examples obviously exist, but these are some easy targets.)

Basically, what you're creating is a system where androids will be abused, badly and often. They will be forced into slave-like working conditions -- because they're not human, so obviously they won't mind working 80-hour weeks in tiny cubicles that aren't comfortable. And they don't need vacation or sick leave, right?

They will be abused by police. (See Civil Rights Era in America.) Because they have no rights, so why should they be treated with any form of dignity by police at any point?

Property rights

Really, the only protections you can possibly grant them, short of human rights, is to assign them property value. So that means they actually are slaves. But just like I can sue someone who wrecks my car, if the law says I can sue you for abusing "my android," then there's at least some incentive to not destroy or harm it.

Laws against "animal cruelty" might be tried in android cases. But legally, androids will be proven to not be biologically "alive" since they are manufactured and not natural life. How the courts will decide this is anyone's guess, but there's a strong possibility that they won't be declared alive, and therefore will be immune to animal abuse laws.

long term

If your androids are capable of emotion, this situation will be untenable. They will eventually try to push for an expansion of rights -- and rightly so. Their struggle will go down the same paths of struggle already taken by persons of color, by women, and by LGBTQ communities, as they fight for the right to be alive and human and equal.

And that struggle may get messy.

But I hope they win this struggle.

Blending in

Androids can blend in better than persons of color as mentioned in my first paragraph.

This is both good news and bad news. Good News because in day-to-day interactions, no one knows they're different. Their otherness is hidden from view. This gives them much more freedom than my historical examples would have provided. But this isn't a perfect defense...

Bad News because the unknown breeds fear. Blending in isn't always enough of a defense. Over time, laws will be passed to try to mark androids, to enforce their other-ness. (See also: Yellow badge.)

And if an android tries to hide behind their appearance of normality, that will cause great backlash. "Oh, you thought you were 'human?!?' you thought you were good enough..." A cop pulls someone out of line for a minor infraction. The someone does not declare their android-ness. Cop performs whatever state-approved test. Gets a positive. Violence commences.

So yes, the ability to blend in hides them from the world and gives them some anonymity. But it can make things worse if they are ever exposed and accused of trying to be human.

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    $\begingroup$ I hope they prevail, but only after a long and interesting book. Series. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this is that the oppressed groups you mention are (for the most part) visually distinguishable from the dominant group. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ You miss the point that the society proposed in this scenario is a generally well-meaning community, not one with heavy racist overtones. I dislike this answer - if history has show us something is that the more technologically advanced we are, the less racist we become. If we end up with androids as a day-to-day thing I'm pretty sure we are way beyond the bad habits of old. $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Sep 18, 2017 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ @T.Sar WRONG!!!!! Learn from history dude. If we say androids are machines, and they don't have emotions or a soul, but just programming, then There is no need to treat them any different they my High tech fridge. We humans are not any less raciest because of tech. We are less raciest "right now" because as a society we feel it's the right thing to do. That could totally slide back the other way if we are given a strong enough reason. Humans are not nice. $\endgroup$
    – coteyr
    Sep 18, 2017 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ "Really, the only protections you can possibly grant them, short of human rights, is to assign them property value. " - this does not seem to apply to animals. Even if you own an animal in many places you can be sentence to prison for being cruel. Post civil war America is probably reverse example to OP case - African-Americans had all rights whites had... on paper. It seems that in OP world the Androids have de facto rights even if they don't have de jure. $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2017 at 0:23

Research Illegal Immigrants

In the US at least, the problems faced by your Androids seem very similar to those faced by Illegal immigrants; they're here and want to work and live, but they don't have the luxury of entering real legally-binding contracts so could be fired or evicted (or deported) at any time for any reason and have no significant recourse.

I don't actually have any information about what is done to protect them in that situation though. My assumption is that it involves keeping a low profile and accepting much poorer treatment than "real people" to make sure that there's a different reason not to get rid of them.

All that said, looking for some kind of legal structure which guarantees rights to someone who doesn't have those rights seems futile; if someone had legal protection of their rights, then they have those rights.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't believe any part of US law specifies that only citizens can enter legally binding contracts in general. There are certainly issues with legal employment, but that's more about doing things under the table (defrauding the government) or misrepresentation (also defrauding the employer) than whether or not non-citizens have legal rights (and they do). That said, I agree that the question is essentially asking how to grant legal rights without granting legal rights, which is odd. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthewRead US law does not prohibit non-citizens from entering binding contracts, but if a person is in the country illegally then it's pretty hard for them to go to the police and complain about breach of contract considering said police would (in theory) arrest them for being an illegal immigrant. The end result is similar though: neither group could complain about inhumane treatment even if one is because the law doesn't protect them and the other is because there are even worse side effects. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ @KamilDrakari that's why police (or elected officials controlling the police) often does not want collaborate with ICE in "sanctuary cities". Beside the rights arguments the main concern is that people will be afraid to go to police if the witness crime/are abused/... In addition as general rule police might be uneasy with arresting for something which is not a state felony but federal misdemeanor. $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2017 at 0:21

There is a simple solution: Make all androids the property of the government. Similar to the way the government is often technically the owner of your identity documents, e.g. passport. It is illegal to damage your own passport, because that's defacing government property. In the same way, the government can defend the "rights" of the androids.

For instance, you can't evict them without notice, because the tenant is technically the government - they are renting the property, the android just uses it.

Allow the androids a limited legal right to enter into contracts on behalf of the government, relating to themselves, in which they act as the voice of the government. Like how if you send an email, then technically it was the computer that sent the message, but it's treated the same way as if you said it in person. So the voice the android is legally a tool by which the government can speak, but only in relation to issues relating to that android.

That way the androids can do anything a person can, and can have all of the same "rights" as a person.


Ultimately, the same thing that protects human workers: class struggle.

If my friend gets fired unfairly, why would I care if he was an android or a human? He's still my friend, I'm still going to fight for him.

Of course, this depends on organisations like trade unions (and tenant's associations for the example of an eviction) accepting androids into their ranks, which isn't a given. It would require a fight, just as there was a fight to drive racism out of these movements (in most of the developed countries) in the 1960s and 1970s.

What is written in law is the outcome of struggles between the various competing forces in society; I would expect any movement that accepted androids in this manner to pretty quickly turn to the task of getting them legal personhood (hell, if corporations can be people then surely an android that is indistinguishable from a human being except by medical analysis is in with a pretty good shot). So the situation you are describing would not be stable in the long term -- but then, nothing is, and change is the heart of all stories.

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    $\begingroup$ Historically, trade unions are more likely to see androids as competition for the same jobs the union members work, until "android wrangler" becomes a common enough job to become unionized. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 17:31

The same way humans do

Escaped or otherwise poorly accounted androids who have no clear human owner self-organize, or join existing human black markets. Since they can pass for human most positions available to illegal workers would suit them fine.

If they look similar to the favored ethnicity where they were made, and have useful technical skills and no trouble communicating in the preferred local languages they probably will have less trouble and more advanced opportunities than illegal immigrants who seem to continue to exist in many countries.

Decent people

Some people would probably rather android were counted as people. Some of them would be in a position to do something. Say by providing jobs or housing without checking IDs. Or by just treating androids like people even though they aren't legally required to and shaming people who don't.

Some places have wide policies against asking the kinds of questions that people with some kinds of issue couldn't answer to avoid knowing when it doesn't really matter.

Violence or threat of violence

"Yes. I am an android. But you know who else is? That's right, you don't. If we have a problem here someday one of the people you pass every day on the way to work might just push you into a bus. If you go to the cops I'll have to run for my life, but so will you."


What mechanisms might be developed by a society such that androids reliably enjoy as many as possible of the privileges humans do, despite not being acknowledged by the law as such?

In this situation there are three broad categories people fall into:

  • Those who think androids are less than people, and actively want them to stay there. They can think of them as furniture, machines / tools, slaves, or abominations, to give some examples.
  • Those who have not considered the situation androids are in, or are generally apathetic to the problems it causes them. This is the default position a lot of people have towards other people.
  • Those who have met and know androids personally, and want to see them given legal rights in some capacity. They might think of androids as people, children, pets, animals, or servants.

Who wants the androids to be considered people?

Depending on how "lifelike" androids are, most people will automatically see them as essentially human. Take heed that they either have to be a near perfect duplication of humans, or they have to be left recognizably robotic, lest they fall into the Uncanny Valley. Realistically, this setting will have a range of android styles, and some will unfortunately be unable to pass themselves off as human.

If only a single person in the society recognizes the personhood of the androids, even though the law does not, then you will have your desired situation in their immediate vicinity. There is always a subset of the population that is accepting of those who are different from themselves. These individuals will most likely use guilt and social stigma to discourage the mistreatment of androids by the humans around them. "You wouldn't kick a dog, would you?"

Why aren't Androids considered people yet?

This raises the question as to why laws have not been made to establish the personhood of androids, and one glaring obstacle comes immediately to mind. Androids would be expensive to develop, build, maintain and update. It would take a mega-corporation to field a single series of them in numbers which would be a meaningful percentage of the population. If the androids are recognized as people, then you cannot sell them anymore, and certainly no one will waste time and money building them anymore.

Some self-conscious Androids may even accept their role in society as long as their younger brothers and sisters will continue to be "born". Some humans might consider granting legal personhood to an artificial being devalues their own worth.

My last point is the work that has to be put in by the government, no snark intended. Do they give personhood rights to all machines? Just the human shaped ones? Those with a sufficiently advanced AI? How do they determine what level of AI is good enough to be a person? Is the government obligated to provide for the general welfare of it's mechanical citizens? Will people and machines to be able to marry each other? What if an android expresses the desire to adopt a human child? The fictional lawmakers in this fictional world have to deal with the real consequences of these questions.


The top answers covered the Androids As Property approach very well and the Androids As Semi-People approach pretty well, so I'll expand on a group that hasn't been addressed yet: feral and wild androids.

Wild androids: Wild androids are those which have been lost by their owner, "set free" or expelled by their owner, or became owner-less when the owner died and no one collected the android. These androids are rightful property of their owner and/or their descendants and should be returned to them, but it's not uncommon for them to be claimed by whoever finds them. If the original owner is able to track the android down or sees it in use, they can claim ownership of it and escalate to civil court. The state or county may record ownership of high-value androids in the same way that real estate and automobile ownership is tracked, and that would make it easier. Androids should have the owner's information in their firmware, but that may be damaged or inaccessible. This bit of firmware will probably be similar to a car's odometer, in that it is tamper-evident and illegal to change inappropriately. Overall this would be quite similar to the cases where a dumpster diver finds a valuable piece of art in the trash, and the careless original owner tries to re-claim ownership when they see it in an auction with a high price (it's rare, but it happens and it's really complicated).

Feral androids Ferals are broken or glitchy androids that may have run off (not intentionally, it's just one of the ways an android can break) and/or has been deemed unsafe around the general public. For example if an android's force limiters or vision sensors malfunction, it could easily be unsafe or unpredictable - which is inherently unsafe. These would be treated like a dog infected with rabies or a dangerous exotic pet that escaped. Animal/android control could be called and alerted that the machine is no longer safe, and they would rate the situation based on the likely danger to the public and act accordingly. If an android is simply running endlessly in some direction, they'd notify police in that direction and tell them they can subdue the android and ensure it doesn't run into anyone. But if it's going around shaking people's hands then crushing their fingers because it doesn't know when to stop squeezing (or anything else destructive), they could dispatch people to subdue or destroy the android. They may try to capture the android if that is the safest option, and it would be refurbished at the owner's expense and returned. If the android can't be subdued, then it would be destroyed on the spot and the owner and/or creator is responsible for any damage it caused.


@Evilsoup touched on this, but androids could certainly get the same rights as a corporation. I think of it this way: If an android is capable of acquiring property, it is capable of being sued for that property in the same way that corporations can be sued. There will certainly be a lot of prejudice and civil rights issues for androids like everyone else has discussed, but I think that to start with androids and AIs would be granted something similar to corporate personhood. This is by no means Human Rights, and at no point do I ever see humans granting even another sentient species equal rights without bloodshed.


Unions 2.0 (a.k.a. the universal android backlist)

What if all ('rogue'/'independent') androids would automatically connect to the same network and any human or human organization who acts illegally against an android gets added to a backlist.

  • Tentant throws out an android without following legal procedures? No android will ever rent from him again and all current android tenants leave straight away.
  • Company ignores the not-legally-binding contractual obligations between them and an android? No android will ever work for them (or any of their parents) again.

Sure, once in awhile a company struggling for its existence might decide to fire all androids as it requires no legal payment. But it would only happen as an act of desperation, as it destroys the future of a company.

You still would probably want some non-legally-binding court system which allows you to get taken of this backlist, but that's just implementation details. Problems arise when you start thinking about the existence of those androids (why wouldn't a company simply build androids for themselves which ignores that backlist and remove the 'free will' portion), but anyway :) .


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