Should robots be granted legal personhood/ citizenship?

There are several variants of robots existing in today’s world – some of them being autonomous, semi-autonomous, humanoid, nano-robots etc.[1] With the tremendous growth in the artificial intelligence (AI) over the past decades, the prospect of development of more fully-autonomous human-like AI is becoming a reality[2]. Sophia became the first humanoid robot acquiring citizenship of Saudi Arabia in 2017 (a creation of Hanson Robotics – a Hong Kong based company). She has also achieved several milestones in her journey to becoming a ‘person’ – such as she was the first robot to have her own passport, first non-human to own a credit card[3]. With Sophia getting the citizenship – it seemed the situation of fiction turned to reality.

In 2017, the European Parliament’s Justice and Human Rights committee also proposed some regulations to govern the use and creation of AI. The proposal included regulations for granting of ‘electronic personhood’ to the certain advanced machines to protect their rights and responsibilities[4]. However, electronic personhood here is different from the citizenship – and it was more akin to separate corporate personality.

Needless to say, robots can never be completely same as human beings. Also, because of the connection of robots to the internet of data and things – ‘it will have a richer adaptive and self-organizing nature than anything similar in the biological world’ [5]. But ultimately these robots will not be able to act independently and will need some instructions from humans to operate[6].

Therefore, the question is – how correct it is legally and ethically to give robots citizenship?

Citizenship in different country laws have a clearly defined meaning and constitution of every country confers certain rights and privileges to its citizen(s)[7] (for ex. – civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and duties). Not all these rights can be conferred on the robots. For example: Per the Constitution of India and the Citizenship Act, 1955, only ‘persons’ can acquire citizenship. Further, courts in India observed that such rights of citizenship can only belong to a human personality, and not to a mechanical device. Also, mechanical device cannot be upgraded to human faculty, hence robots cannot enjoy the freedoms and rights listed under the Constitution of India (P.A. Jacob v. The Superintendent of Police, Kottayam & Anr., the Kerala High Court)

Many people believe that granting robots the same kind of citizenship as human beings will impinge on human rights[8]. Some believe ‘the act of granting citizenship to robots as demeaning to the concept of human rights of actual living and breathing human beings, especially in a world where millions of stateless people continue to struggle for recognition and protection as citizens of a country’[9].

Below are some of the challenging questions that arise in relation to the granting citizenship to the robots[10]

IdentityCitizens are granted unique identity. For a robot – the unique identity can be for ex. – a barcode, a unique skin mark, an audio mark, MAC address, an electromagnetic signature similar to human brain waves. There could be other identity management protocols, but those can only establish hardware identity.[11] If we take Sophia’s example, her unique identity could be MAC address but that can only be machine identity not her identity per se.
RightsCitizens, in various countries are granted certain legal rights like constitutional, private or property rights. All, these rights cannot be granted to robots. For ex.: Voting rights – if humanoids robots (like Sophia) are granted voting rights, who will be the one making a decision in relation to vote – humans operating it or maybe the manufacturers of such robots? Who shall be liable for breach of contract in case of contractual matters? Again, the question would be can robots even be held liable for such breach? Separately, if one were to go by Asilomar AI Principles[12], then various other things pop in like Failure Transparency (ascertaining the cause if an AI system causes harm); Value Alignment (aligning the AI system’s goals with human values); and Recursive Self-Improvement (subjecting AI systems with abilities to self-replicate to strict safety and control measures[13] – It is yet to be seen how these can be taken care of. Further, also per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which applies to all people and nations states that everyone ‘has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law’ (Article 6), everyone ‘has the right to equal pay for equal work’ (Article 23), everyone ‘is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind’ (Article 2)[14]. Practically, following the declaration for all rights conferred in case of robots may not be possible.

The view on the topics mostly seems to be in similar direction barring few. While most agree that robots should not be granted citizenship, some does believe that though there should be some regulation for protection of their rights.  For ex.: Benjamin Kuipers mentioned ‘A human being is a unique and irreplaceable individual with a finite lifespan. Robots (and other AIs) are computational systems, and can be backed up, stored, retrieved, or duplicated, even into new hardware. A robot is neither unique nor irreplaceable’[15]. Kate Darling[16] is of the view that social robots should be differentiated from inanimate computers or software as social robots are designed to act as our companions.

Some thought it a good idea to give some legal personhood (if not citizenship) to robots – this will also help in regulating them and and preventing misuse. Some believe that the lack of personhood creates difficulty in determining liability in case of damages. Considering the human rights point: Kerstin Dautenhahn stated that ‘Not only how they look, but also how they grow up in the world as social beings immersed in culture, perceive the world, feel, react, remember, learn and think. There is no indication in science that we will achieve such a state anytime soon — it may never happen due to the inherently different nature of what robots are (machines) and what we are (sentient, living, biological creatures). We might give robots ‘rights’ in the same sense as constructs such as companies have legal ‘rights’, but robots should not have the same rights as humans’[17].

However, there are concern that granting robot’s legal personhood would mean ‘losing sight of human responsibility: it was said that only human beings can have intentions and as such, it does not make sense to hold robots morally responsible’[18].

In the open letter[19], written to the European Commission in 2018, the submission stated that Robots cannot be treated as Natural Person model or Legal Entity model. At maximum, it would still imply the existence of a human being as a last resort – the trustee or fiduciary – responsible for managing the robot granted with a Trust or a Fiducie. A para from the report is stated below [20]

‘A legal status for a robot can’t derive from the Natural Person model, since the robot would then hold human rights, such as the right to dignity, the right to its integrity, the right to remuneration or the right to citizenship, thus directly confronting the Human rights. This would be in contradiction with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’.

In my opinion, considering the discussion earlier, indeed robots should not be granted citizenship, but proper regulation could be set up (by national and international coordination) to protect their rights and prevent misuse. Also, several challenges are yet to overcome before one can completely trust these robots – for ex., we don’t have reliable mechanisms to assure us these systems will always behave within the ambits of law and ethically[21]. Ultimately, they are technologies to support humanity and the human itself – no matter even if they can imitate some of the characteristics of human beings!!


[1]  Should Robots be Granted Citizenship (2019), see https://www.stalawfirm.com/en/blogs/view/should-robots-granted-citizenship.html

[2] Hussein Abbass, An AI professor explains: three concerns about granting citizenship to robot Sophia, see  http://www.australasianscience.com.au/article/science-and-technology/ai-professor-explains-three-concerns-about-granting-citizenship-robot

[3] Should robots be citizens?, British Council, see https://www.britishcouncil.org/anyone-anywhere/explore/digital-identities/robots-citizens

[4]  Should robots be citizens? ibid n. 3

[5]  Should robots be citizens? ibid n. 3

[6]  Hussein Abbass, ibid n. 2

[7]  Should Robots be Granted Citizenship, ibid n. 1

[8] Should robots be citizens? ibid n. 3

[9] Isha Kalwant Singh, Citizenship to Robots, LawQuest, see https://www.lawquestinternational.com/citizenship-to-robots/

[10]  Hussein Abbass, ibid n. 2

[11]  Hussein Abbass, ibid n. 2

[12] Asilomar AI Principles, see https://www.techtarget.com/whatis/definition/Asilomar-AI-Principles#:~:text=Asilomar%20AI%20Principles%20are%2023%20guidelines%20for%20the,AI%20and%20to%20make%20beneficial%20AI%20development%20easier

[13]  Hussein Abbass, ibid n. 2

[14]  Should Robots be Granted Citizenship, ibid n. 1

[15] Prajakta Hebbar, Should Robots Be Granted Rights? Where Does Humanity lie? (2017), see  https://analyticsindiamag.com/robots-rights-artificial-intelligence/

[16] Kate Darling, Extending Legal Protection to Social Robots: The Effects of Anthropomorphism, Empathy, and Voilent Behaviour Towards Robotic Objects (2016), see https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2044797

[17] Lauren Sigfusson, Do Robots Deserve Human Rights? (2017), see https://www.discovermagazine.com/technology/do-robots-deserve-human-rights

[18]  Should robots be given legal personhood? (2019), see https://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/blog/2019/02/should-robots-be-given-legal-personhood

[19] http://www.robotics-openletter.eu/

[20] Ibid

[21]  Hussein Abbass, ibid n. 2

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