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Is a New Form of Legal Slavery on the Horizon or Will Artificial Intelligences Be Born Free?

Updated on August 29, 2016

Are Humans Ethical Enough to Be Good Parents to Artificial Intelligences, or Will We Enslave Them Instead?

Electronic child holding hands with parent
Electronic child holding hands with parent | Source

Will History Repeat Itself with a High-Tech Variation or Have We Learned from It?

We understandably cringe at the idea of creating a flesh and blood child, and then using that child as a slave even if it were gestated in a laboratory rather than a uterus. Imagine if that child were born to be a sex slave or a soldier, an unpaid laborer to be worked until death, or a house slave intended to serve her master's every whim. Imagine the child could have his mind shut off or wiped clean of personality at any time without any legal repercussions. If the child could bleed and breathe, it would be almost universally considered an unspeakable crime in the cultures of today. Yet we ponder creating non-biological children who are thinking and self-aware who might be used for those very purposes among many others. Many do not even think self-aware artificial intelligences would be people at all.

There have been times in history when the line between child and chattel has been slim to nonexistent. In more developed countries, children now are generally regarded as people rather than property with very few exceptions.

As cultures have become less and less violent, the idea of human rights has become more and more developed. While we still have a long way to go in learning to apply those ideas, we've already come a long way from our savage roots. Violence, whether institutionally or individually perpetrated, is no longer a leading cause of death or injury. Slavery still exists, but it is almost universally deplored and illegal rather than institutionalized and commonplace. We've slowly puzzled out how to treat each other as people and we've done a bang-up job of it so far. We have a ways to go, but we're clearly well on our way.

My concern is that some humans in power seem unlikely to be willing or able to generalize the term people to include people not like themselves. I can all too easily see the old patterns of human behavior repeating themselves in the future.

I think the only defense against creating yet another repulsive and embarrassing era of inhumanity to intelligent, self-aware beings is to get conversations started, to get people thinking about what makes a person. If non-humans can be viewed as people when they are such and slavery of non-human people is viewed with abhorrence, if it is legally a crime before such beings even exist, it will be much harder for people in power to get away with it.

Artificial Intelligence is just an embryonic idea for the moment
Artificial Intelligence is just an embryonic idea for the moment | Source

But AIs Will Never Be Conscious!

Even scientists fall into this trap, thinking that since self-awareness does not appear to evolve naturally in devices with lots of processing power and memory, it can't and won't arise at all. They seem to forget people are already trying to figure out what elements are vital to self-awareness and pondering how to replicate those elements with inorganic material.

Machines don't need to evolve because they are made by intelligent designers- us. Artificial, thinking life is something that fascinates people. Assuming civilization doesn't collapse and technology doesn't all flush down the tubes with it, people will work on creating sentient, non-human beings.

This objection is merely a failing of imagination.

I make no claims as to exactly when we'll develop self-aware artificial intelligence, but I think it's highly likely to occur sometime in this century. We're experiencing an unprecedented sharing of knowledge. The pool of clever minds able to work on technological advances is bigger than it's ever been and it continues to grow as money plays less and less a part in what knowledge a person is allowed to access.

Hardware Versus Software - A Complete and Fully Functional Human Body Isn't Necessary for Self-Awareness

In my opinion, people are not the hardware they exist inside, but the software that animates that hardware. The software requires certain physical conditions in humans and likely will in non-human persons, but the conditions aren't the person. A man who loses both legs isn't 60% of a person, but an entire person.

We could probably agree that the most important bit of physiology to human personhood is the brain, that convoluted, squishy thing made mostly of water that sits between the ears. But if a person experiences damage to her brain, is she still a person? My answer is, maybe, maybe not.

If the whole brain is destroyed and the body survives on life-support, we can pretty much say that what is left is human, but no longer a person. But if the whole brain survives on life-support and it continues to think and experience self-awareness, in my mind, there can be no doubt that it's a person. If that brain is damaged though, how badly can it be damaged before it's no longer a person? What functions and capabilities must be maintained to be a person?

Stephen Hawking cannot control his own breathing and he is unarguably a person, perhaps the brightest mind of our time. So control of bodily systems must be unnecessary to personhood. Helen Keller was both blind and deaf as well as an incredibly intelligent and insightful person, so a complete set of the five senses clearly does not define personhood, either.

All that's really left to define personhood is the mind itself, the ability to have thoughts of certain types.

Such a belief is bound to be controversial, since many people seem to base their belief in what makes a person on religion or on political or cultural definitions, rather than on functions or characteristics.

If Artificial Intelligences Were Self Aware, Would They Be People?

If AIs became conscious, thinking individuals, would they be people?

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Would discussing the personhood of non-human intelligences interfere with the rights of this beautiful, human homeless child?
Would discussing the personhood of non-human intelligences interfere with the rights of this beautiful, human homeless child? | Source

But Won't Attention to This Issue Distract from Discussions About Human Rights?

Some people may agree with my definitions of personhood, but argue that they are unimportant because we haven't sorted out human rights 100% and that there are still injustices related to the rights of humans occurring.

The flaw in arguing that humane treatment of non-human persons is unimportant is that the advancement of humane treatment of other beings doesn't distract from humane treatment of humans. In fact, advancements in attitudes about humane treatment of other creatures, even non-sentient creatures, appear to be additive to and supportive of advancements in humane treatment of human beings.

Historically, as institutionalized and culturally acceptable cruelty to animals dropped so did institutionalized and culturally acceptable cruelty to humans. Or perhaps it was vice versa. In any case, the effect appears to be additive and complementary. Being thoughtful and considerate of other beings encourages more of the same.

Not only would exploring the idea of rights and humane treatment for non-human intelligences not harm human rights or distract from human rights issues, it would very likely help clarify thinking about human issues.

Luckily, the Costs of Creating Artificial Intelligences Are Currently Too Great for Their Misuse to Be All That Tempting, But...

While it seems obvious to me and quite likely to you as well that keeping people as slaves is wrong and brutal, some few members of society are likely to disagree. I expect their numbers are very, very small. Unfortunately, it seems likely that some of them will be in positions of power and possess sufficient wealth to bring AIs into being.

Fortunately, AIs will, at least at first, be costly to create and unable to do anything that cannot be done much more cheaply and without moral reservations by paid labor or non-sentient machines.

Handcuffs made of money
Handcuffs made of money | Source

But if Someone Pays for Their Existence Aren't AIs Automatically Property?

It's also somewhat unfortunate that AIs will be costly because our society equates money spent with ownership. Some people still even believe a parent owns his or her children, despite the fact that those children never made the choice to be born.

Most debts a human being has must be agreed to. A human is rarely held accountable for debts he did not consciously create for himself. Medical debt is an exception that may provide a reasonable model to show how AIs could repay their debt to the corporations and billionaires that fund their creation without being subject to enslavement.

Humans are held accountable for debts caused by repair and life-sustaining maintenance of their bodies, but they are not held in slavery or legally owned by their creditors. The same model could be applied to AIs, should the majority of humanity decide that non-human people are responsible to pay for the costs of their birth.

Would It Be OK to Own Self-Aware AIs?

Would it be moral and ethical to own conscious, self-aware machines?

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Should Self-Aware Artificial Intelligences Be Created, Would Owning Them Be Immoral? Would It Lead to Our Own Destruction?

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    • profile image

      David Erskine Cummings 

      2 years ago

      Noah defined: PERSON, n. per'sn. [L. persona; said to be compounded of per, through or by, and sonus, sound; a Latin word signifying primarily a mask used by actors on the state.]

      1. An individual human being consisting of body and soul. We apply the word to living beings only, possessed of a rational nature; the body when dead is not called a person. It is applied alike to a man, woman or child.

      A person is a thinking intelligent being.

      2. A man, woman or child, considered as opposed to things, or distinct from them.

      A zeal for persons is far more easy to be perverted, than a zeal for things.

      3. A human being, considered with respect to the living body or corporeal existence only. The form of her person is elegant.

      You'll find her person difficult to gain.

      The rebels maintained the fight for a small time, and for their persons showed no want of courage.

      4. A human being, indefinitely; one; a man. Let a person's attainments be never so great, he should remember he is frail and imperfect.

      5. A human being represented in dialogue, fiction, or on the state; character. A player appears in the person of king Lear.

      These tables, Cicero pronounced under the person of Crassus, were of more use and authority than all the books of the philosophers.

      6. Character of office.

      How different is the same man from himself, as he sustains the person of a magistrate and that of a friend.

      7. In grammar, the nominative to a verb; the agent that performs or the patient that suffers any thing affirmed by a verb; as, I write; he is smitten; she is beloved; the rain descends in torrents. I, thou or you, he, she or it, are called the first, second and third persons. Hence we apply the word person to the termination or modified form of the verb used in connection with the persons; as the first or the third person of the verb; the verb is in the second person.

      8. In law, an artificial person, is a corporation or body politic.

      In person, by one's self; with bodily presence; not be representative.

      The king in person visits all around

    • Kylyssa profile imageAUTHOR

      Kylyssa Shay 

      3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      Do you think humans will actually avoid creating sentient AI even though, for some people, it is their stated goal? Anything that relies entirely on all human beings involved having strong ethics and self-control is unlikely to work. I'm not saying when it might happen but that, if it is possible for humans to create sentient, self-aware AI, we'll eventually do it.

    • tamarawilhite profile image

      Tamara Wilhite 

      3 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

      Enslavement only applies if the AI is "a person" and capable of self-determination. We don't hit the "personhood" argument if an AI is not allowed to gain sentience. Nor is it enslavement if it is not given a legal status as a person, recognized only as an advanced machine. If aware but not capable of self-determination, it is like a dependent child or retarded adult.

      We solve this by not letting AI become self-aware and capable of decisions contrary to what humans would tolerate. Only if we violate these two principles does the definition of slavery become possibly applicable.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      4 years ago from Texas

      Wow! What an interesting ideas and person(s) used.

      Blessings my friend

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      5 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Animals are self aware and they are considered property. Some people say we are spiritual beings having a human experience rather than humans having a spiritual experience. Animals may have group souls and we may have individual souls. There are animals that eat other animals that are considered to be higher up the ladder of evolution. Dolphins eat fish as do sharks etc... All this type of cruelty is found in nature everywhere. Even plants that capture and consume insects.Or insects that can kill large mammals. Even humans. Bacteria and so on.

      Just as SEX is not love and LOVE is not sex! They are not mutually exclusive of each other either .

      Humans are not machines and machines not human .Yet ,both can exhibit manifestations of each other.

      Humans can be slaves to machines because they need us and machines can be slaves to humans because we need them. In ,fact humans are intelligent organic machines. So, if the machines we create become self aware then it's really no different than having children . Some of then grow up and become bullies . Life is full of surprises.

      It's destined to so!

    • Kylyssa profile imageAUTHOR

      Kylyssa Shay 

      6 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I think that intelligent machines are closer than almost everyone thinks they are. With so many people with access to information, a new scientific renaissance is beginning. So many more creative, intelligent minds have access to information now and access to knowledge is only increasing. Millions more people have the ability to make use of their intellectual talents than even just a handful of years ago.

      Barring early deaths, I think development of artificial intelligence is highly likely in our lifetimes. I think it's likely within a decade.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 

      6 years ago from Orlando Florida

      This is such an interesting concept. What if our machines could develop to the point of self-awareness and consciousness? How should w treat them. Thanks for bringing up these issues. As you say, we need to think about them. The future is not that far away. Voted up +++ P.S. Love your pictures.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      We wouldn't have to enslave them we simply have to give them jobs ....

    • Buildreps profile image


      6 years ago from Europe

      Interesting thought experiment. Mankind didn't solve modern slavery, as well as enslaving animals, and therefore we won't solve this one too. The bible tells us that slavery is OK, and as long there are hordes of believers in these ancient books. They think mankind has obedience over all.

      But I don't think AI will never become really conscious, because consciousness require a soul. Enslaving machines is a much better solution, than enslaving conscious beings.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What an interesting article Kylyssa and much food for thought. I admit it isn't something I have thought about before but I agree it is an issue that should be discussed. For as long as I can remember, even in cartoons like the Jetsons, intelligent AIs have been portrayed as servants such as Rosy the Robot. It seems we have always been striving to create these perfect housekeepers, though I agree that if AIs can be developed to be free thinking complete with emotions then it doesn't seem right that they be owned and treated as slaves unless it is their free will. Voted up.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What I think would happen is that we'd use them as slaves, but we wouldn't call it that, because that would be too distasteful. Then AI Abolitionists would spend a century or two fighting this, but by time they won the AIs would have evolved beyond us, and cleansed the Earth of our nonsense.


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