Human rights, animal rights, and robot rights.

An interesting article, in the New York Times, discusses the question of the rights of animals and robots.

The article describes the demise of Harambe, a gorilla from the Cincinnati Zoo, killed when a young boy fell in the moat that was part of the habitat that Harambe shared with two other gorillas. When they felt the boy was in danger, the zookeepers shot the gorilla, in an effort to save the life of the boy.


Angry protesters complained that shooting the gorilla was a violation of his rights. Discussing the rights of gorillas is particularly eerie because gorillas are so close to us. They are among our  nearest cousins, having separated from humans a mere  7 million years ago.

Today, these musings have another worrying side. We view ourselves as owners and sometimes protectors of the lower animals. Soon, however, robots may view ourselves in the same way we view gorillas, or other animals. Should robots be allowed to kill humans, if and when they endanger other humans or other animals? What are the moral questions at stake here? When is it legitimate to kill a human or, for that matter, an animal? And what about the rights of robots? It is ok to terminate them, as long as they are not sentient?

The key question is: how inhuman is it to kill an animal or to terminate a robot? Does it depend on the level of sentience the animal or the robot has? Most people believe lower animals are not conscious, but the jury is still out on that question. Are bats conscious? Do they experience some sort of consciousness when they fly in the dark, sensing the environment with ultrasounds? Can we ever get to know that is feels like to be a bat?

Thomas Nagel article ““What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, discusses exactly this subjective aspect of consciousness, concluding that we can never fully understand what consciousness is, from the subjective point of view of the entity living the experience. Other philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett disagree, and believe that consciousness can, and will be, understood, since it is nothing more than an emerging phenomenon, a result of the operation of complex systems.

Illustration by Nishant Choksi, for the New York Times.



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