Robot rights? Let's talk about human welfare instead

Abeba Birhane, Jelle van Dijk

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionAcademicpeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)
419 Downloads (Pure)


The 'robot rights' debate, and its related question of 'robot responsibility', invokes some of the most polarized positions in AI ethics. While some advocate for granting robots rights on a par with human beings, others, in a stark opposition argue that robots are not deserving of rights but are objects that should be our slaves. Grounded in post-Cartesian philosophical foundations, we argue not just to deny robots 'rights', but to deny that robots, as artifacts emerging out of and mediating human being, are the kinds of things that could be granted rights in the first place. Once we see robots as mediators of human being, we can understand how the 'robots rights' debate is focused on first world problems, at the expense of urgent ethical concerns, such as machine bias, machine elicited human labour exploitation, and erosion of privacy all impacting society's least privileged individuals. We conclude that, if human being is our starting point and human welfare is the primary concern, the negative impacts emerging from machinic systems, as well as the lack of taking responsibility by people designing, selling and deploying such machines, remains the most pressing ethical discussion in AI.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAIES '20
Subtitle of host publicationProceedings of the AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society
PublisherAssociation for Computing Machinery
Number of pages7
ISBN (Print)978-1-4503-7110-0
Publication statusPublished - 7 Feb 2020
Event3rd AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society, AIES 2020 - New York, United States
Duration: 7 Feb 20208 Feb 2020
Conference number: 3


Conference3rd AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society, AIES 2020
Abbreviated titleAIES
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityNew York
Internet address


  • AI ethics
  • Embodiment
  • Human welfare
  • Robot rights


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