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Do Robots Have Rights?
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd
Our Sages teach, "Precious is man, for he has been created in the image of G-d." In his Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam explains that "the image of G-d" refers to our capacity "to conceive of intellectual ideas and to be conscious of 'Him who spoke and brought the world into being.'" This, the ability to use our minds creatively and to direct our thoughts to G-d, is the pinnacle of our human potential." - The Rebbe - Shabbos Ki Seitse, 5751

The line between creator and creation has gotten a little blurrier lately thanks to sophisticated robots that are smart enough to invent technologies of their own. These are not simplistic gadgets the likes of which you might concoct while daydreaming at a red light or doodling on a napkin. We are speaking about innovative pharmaceutical formulations or genetic fixes that may normally take dozens of scientists many years and millions of dollars to develop.

This new breed of robot has taken information technology to a whole new level. What once was called the science of automation has been overturned to become the automation of science. Yes, the robot itself has become the scientist's scientist.

Divine providence is often credited with providing the remedy before the affliction. The modern affliction is complexity. The problems that scientists face today, for example in biotechnology, involve thousands of variables each having various states and many interactions with each other and various elements of the environment, resulting in millions of possible outcomes that all have to be evaluated before you even get to the stage of making an experiment to physically test anything. Whew!

The cure is processing power. Today's robots can identify problems, review existing options, design new alternatives, test them all theoretically, and determine the most effective and robust solutions. Amazing.

But the new cures generate their own set of afflictions, one of which is legal. Who has the right to patent these cybersolutions, the inventor of the robot, or the robot itself? Believe it or not, according to the journal, SCIENCE, it depends on where you (or the robot) lives. In the USA, only inventions by humans can be protected by patents. In Europe, it seems, the laws governing intellectual property extend to any legal entity, possibly even robots.

What can we learn from all this? First let's look at things from the robot's perspective. Left to its own devices, such a smartbot could look at himself proudly and proclaim, "Wow, I'm amazing! I've studied everything out there and there's nothing that can analyze problems and create solutions like I can."

Well hang on there, Mr. Bot. You are yourself a mere creation, the product of analysis and design by a creative intelligence greater than yours. True, you too can invent, and brilliantly at that, but your scope is limited, your intelligence artificial, your personality vacuous, your circuitry simplistic. And besides, the very tasks you have been hardwired from the outset to perform, are the very tasks you falsely pride yourself in. If anyone deserves the credit, it is the creative genius that made you the creative genius you are.

And the same may be said of us.

Man, the inventor, is the invention of an inventive mind like his, but infinitely greater still. True, his analytic and creative prowess is incomparable in all the world, but man would do well to heed the Torah's admonition in Parshas Ekev, "And you think, 'My strength and the power of my hand has acquired this wealth for me.'"

Is it any more ludicrous for our techno-babies to take exclusive credit for their inventions, then it is for us to boast of ours? Honesty demands that we too look upstream to acknowledge our source and recognize who owns what, as the Mishna says, "Give Him what is His because you and yours are His, as King David said, 'Everything is from You, and it is from Your hand that we give to You.'"

Justice issues aside, it's interesting (or at least mildly amusing) to note that robots' rights are apparently defendable in Europe, the cradle of modern atheism, the continent that reduced man's soul to a hormonal by-product of the random chemical-soup-in-a-bag that comprises his body. After all, brainybots are just one more evolutionary step from us, a kind of Human 2.0, so why shouldn't they have rights, and money to boot?

On the other hand, it's in relatively religious America, a country founded by bible-believers and where even the currency is impressed with divine trust, that superhuman intelligentsia-machines cannot legally vaunt themselves with false pride and profit from the fruits of their apparently earned, yet not so independent thoughts.

When Renaissance Europe deposed the Church, they threw out the baby with the bathwater - they trashed the notions of G-d, the soul, and the significance of human life. Ironically the very science that they sought to replace it all with, has brought the baby back into the picture: It is once again sensible to believe in G-d, science does seem to point to the existence a non-physical soul, and remarkably it is physics itself that puts humans (and not robots) right back in the center of the cosmic stage with all of nature predicated on his choices.

Personally I'm thrilled by the advent of humanoid robots - the possibilities for benefiting man and the environment are endless. But I'm still going to relish in the one thing that really sets us humans apart: Freedom. The freedom to choose between good and evil. The freedom to choose between good, better and best. The freedom to choose between Moshiach later and Moshiach NOWand complete redemption with Moshiach NOW!


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