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Legal Personality and Non Human Beings

Dernière mise à jour : 18 avr.



During SXSW festival in 2016 Hanson Robotics founder David Hanson showed off Sophia, the famous female robot that was given the opportunity to express personal project and life plans. Interestingly, Sophia stated that she wanted to do things such as studying, making art, starting a business and regretted not being ‘considered a legal person’. This remark is far from trivial. By the way, in 2017, the gynoid was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia (which, incidentally, is rather cynical on the part of a government that is not concerned with human rights and promoting equality between women and men). This could be used to give new ammunition for the arguments presented by D. Haraway in her feminist essay Cyborg Manifesto (to which we will refer below).


The question whether entities (such as robots, androids and other artificial beings) should be considered as legal persons (with rights and duties of their own) is a legal and ethical issue. The problem is all the more worthy of consideration as some high risk AI systems can cause prejudices to individuals (physical injury or moral damage) because of their autonomy. This issue is linked to the question of the liability regime: can a machine reasonably be held responsible for its actions ? The question of legal personality goes beyond the field of artificial intelligence since it is currently posed with regard to biological entities such as animals and natural entities such as mountains, trees, water basins and other natural elements. Historically and etymologically, the word ‘person’ was used to refer to human beings. Legal systems have long been based on this classical view, even if the law, which readily resorts to fictions (as instrumental constructs), grants legal personality to entities such as companies.


It is evident that legal reality depends on political will and our cognitive representations. Let us take the case of animals and robots, which do not currently enjoy a legal status comparable to that of humans. The question of granting personality to these two categories of non-human beings does not arise in the same terms. The logic is different because animals are sentient beings whereas robots are, for the moment, only intelligent. And this intelligence is very limited because strong AI does not exist. The stakes are not the same because in the first case it is a question of protecting animals from suffering (and ensuring their welfare), in the second case it is more a matter of protecting ourselves legally from the risks inherent in certain potentially dangerous AI systems. In both cases, however, animals and robots embody a form of radical otherness or alterity that constantly questions the law.

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