A recent BBC Futures article asks, ‘Is it OK to torture or murder a robot?’. Oh boy, where to start? The question makes no sense; it completely and utterly misunderstands the nature of torture, murder and robots. It is not possible to torture a robot because robots are machines that lack all sentient existence, they cannot feel. Attempting to torture a robot (except in jest) makes as much sense as attempting to torture a toaster. By all means go ahead, but neither the robot nor the toaster will care. And neither should we.
Similarly, it is not possible to murder a robot because a robot is not a person with a past, present and future that can be prematurely taken from them. A robot is an active piece of machinery. It can be vandalised, smashed and deliberately broken, but never murdered.
Of course, robots are being created that present themselves as sentient and thoughtful beings (think Furby on steroids) and we humans have a strong tendency to read our own thoughts and feelings into a whole host of inanimate objects. We love our robot vacuum cleaners, we hate our cars, we appreciate our fridges and we admire the cunning ability of our computers to die at just the wrong moment. But the apparent sentience and thoughts of robots are just that, apparent, projected there by their actual sentient and thinking human users.
People know this, of course. We know that machines do not actually think and feel, and that is why we laugh at our ridiculous tendency to feel bad when we throw away a worn-out or out-moded computer, phone or even a handbag. Some researchers, however, have proposed that we are so hardwired to feel that we might extend rights to robots to protect them and us. That really puts the problem back-to-front.
No matter how powerful the emotions evoked by a robot, it is vital we understand that only human beings are human. If you want to ensure good relations and connections between human beings, then it is better to not encourage a misrepresentation of machines as human.
Stuart Derbyshire is associate professor in the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore (NUS) and A*STAR-NUS Clinical Imaging Research Centre.