Not Could, But Should Intelligent Machines Have Rights?

The question of whether intelligent machines of the future could own rights to their creations has been raised in the last few years, including last year at an international conference. Often, the question of rights for machines arises in the context of recognizing pictorial copyrights in images auto-generated by algorithms, but also in the context of invention (patent) rights. The progeny of these intellectual property (IP)-specific machine-rights questions suggests another, broader query: once artificial general intelligence (AGI) is achieved, should there be legal recognition of rights for intelligent machines?

In the context of IP, US laws recognize IP rights as arising from human creativity in the sciences and useful arts as a means to incentivize continuing research and creativity. Incentives flow in part from the economic nature of IP rights. Owning copyrights, for example, gives the owner the right to make and distribute copies of a creative work and to permit others to do so conditioned upon payment of a licensing fee, royalty, or some other consideration. Similarly, patent rights give a patent owner the right to exclude others from using one’s invention unless permission is granted, which again may be conditioned upon payment of a fee. In the US, employees who create copyrightable works or patentable invention are typically obligated to assign all their IP rights to their employer without further compensation beyond a regular salary. In such cases, an employer ultimately owns and benefits from its employee’s creations and discoveries.

But if we’re talking about intelligent machines, the debate about machine rights would have to take into consideration whether an intelligent machine could or would “care” about the economic benefits or have other reasons to innovate and create in the first instance. Aside from the prospect of ensuring an intelligent machine’s rights flow to its owner and are not lost, what purpose would be served by legally recognizing a future intelligent machine has rights at all? And if machine IP or other rights were recognized, what consideration would be appropriate to give future intelligent machines in a bargained-for exchange for their recognized rights, assuming the rights have value?

Some have suggested that the very notion of what it is to have “intelligence” will be protected by recognizing that intelligent machines are capable of owning rights. Put another way, if we do not recognize rights attached to the creative output of an intelligent machine, we undermine or diminish the very same rights associated with natural intelligence-generated creations. So the rights a photographer has in a photograph, or an inventor has to a new drug discovery, would be lessened if the same rights were not recognized in an intelligent machine’s similar endeavors. It seems doubtful, though, that an intelligent machine would care that it was given legally cognizable rights only because natural intelligent beings felt it important to do so to avoid diminishing the value they place on their own “intelligence.”

Despite recent advances in natural language processing (NLP), reinforcement learning (RL), and other artificial intelligence technologies, such as those in the areas of reading comprehension accuracy, computer vision object detection, and others, achieving AGI may be years if not decades away. Thus, machine rights is not a question that is especially pressing right now. On the other hand, one cannot predict when someone will announce a major breakthrough in AI and place this question front and center. So the debate about future intelligent machine rights is likely to continue. Hopefully, the debate will not distract from present-day efforts by many to move the needle toward legally recognizing important individual rights that protect people in the course of their daily interactions with existing and future AI technologies.

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