At the recent Future Investment Initiative in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom reportedly granted Saudi citizenship to Sophia, a robot built by Hong Kong company Hanson Robotics. Publicity stunt? A scripted event? Probably a little of both, but this opens the door on a very interesting question as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) become more and more integrated into consumer products and people's daily lives. Should robots have legal status? Citizenship? Civil rights? All of this is uncharted territory that our policy makers are going to have to confront very, very soon.
The pace of the development of AI has been far more rapid than experts have predicted. The granting of Saudi citizenship to Sophia, does not seem to be solely a publicity stunt, and has kicked off many questions in the press about human rights in that country.
For a moment, think about what granting American citizenship to an AI being could mean. There is no such thing as degrees of citizenship. In the United States, it is an all or nothing proposition. Either you are or you aren't a citizen. The Bill of Rights and US Constitution apply to you or they don't. Opening the door to a legal status for robots and AI beings is an incredibly thorny issue.
Could individual states grants state-level rights and privileges to robots and AI beings? In theory, yes. I suspect that the federal government at some point soon is going to have to act, to at least hold preliminary hearings.
We have seen in another context that activists such as PETA have initiated strategic litigation to attempt (however unsuccessfully) to obtain federal rights for animals. Most notably, the copyright litigation brought by PETA to obtain copyright ownership for Naruto, a macaque that lives in Indonesian jungle. Expect that there will be strategic litigation on the "personhood" of robots and AI soon.
Much more to come....