The curious ethics of cruelty to robots

Don’t hurt me: Would you consider it wrong to deliberately break a Sony Aibo robot dog?

Should cruelty to robots be a crime? That is the premise of Westworld, whose second season premiered last week. It calls into question everything we think about morality and consciousness.

Imagine a not-so-distant future where robots are identical to human beings, who are permitted by law to interact with them however they liked. What would you do?

A US TV show called Westworld, based on the 1973 book of the same name, presents this vision. In the show, Westworld is a theme park aimed to imitate the Wild West, but with a crucial twist. It is populated by robot “hosts”, who are programmed to act as naturally as possible with their guests.

There are robot sheriffs, ranchers and bandits. The show deliberately confuses viewers over who is a robot and who is just a human visitor.

While some characters become heroes, others take the chance to act on their most evil impulses, like torture, rape and murder. Some of the victims are identical to human children.

Perhaps one day scientists will create sentient beings whose consciousness is unambiguous. But the issue of robot rights, and how humans should interact with artificial intelligence (AI), has become a pressing question.

In 2015, a robot called hitchBOT was travelling across the US when it was found with its head and arms torn off. Early last year, an EU committee voted that lawmakers should treat robots as “electronic persons”.

To many people, this seemed absurd. And yet, our instincts tell us that harming robots is wrong. Imagine how you would feel about someone who tortured the robot dog in the image above.

For centuries, scientists and philosophers have tried to define consciousness. Some thinkers argue the morality of an action should be judged by its impact on conscious things. In other words, while animals should have rights, robots should not.

But Immanuel Kant, who saw animals as mere objects without moral value, still insisted that humans treat them well because of the implications for how we treat one another: “For he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men,” Kant wrote.

Over 200 years later, this debate has returned. Is it wrong to be cruel to robots?

Man’s inhumanity

“How can you be cruel to a chunk of metal and plastic?” say some. Robots cannot think or control their bodies. Treating robots as if they are no different from any ordinary person devalues what it means to be human. However cute they might look, a robot is no different from a shoe or a fridge: they exist only to help humans.

Wait a moment, reply others. We still have no idea what consciousness is. If we err on the side of caution and treat robots like humans, then we are well prepared for that day when a sentient robot is finally invented. And even if that day never comes, treating robots well sets a good precedent for our interactions with other humans. It’s good to be nice.

You Decide

  1. Is it morally wrong to be cruel to robots?
  2. Should robots have rights?


  1. Define the word “consciousness”. Compare your definition with those of your classmates.
  2. Think of another moral dilemma that will emerge as artificial intelligence becomes more advanced. Write 500 words on what humanity’s response should be.

Some People Say...

“We’re fascinated with robots because they are reflections of ourselves.”

Ken Goldberg

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
AI is advancing, and robots will increasingly resemble humans. Experts have predicted that AI will outperform humans in the next 10 years in tasks such as translating languages (by 2024), writing high school essays (by 2026) and driving trucks (by 2027). We know that humans feel empathetic towards robots: in one study, several participants refused to beat small robots to death when asked to do so.
What do we not know?
How close the vision presented in Westworld really is. Some people expect AI and genetic engineering to meet in the future, but any attempts to create something so human-like would face multiple objections. We also do not know the answers to the questions at the heart of this debate: what exactly is consciousness — and who or what is conscious?

Word Watch

The first episode of the second season aired for the first time on Sunday, April 24. On Rotten Tomatoes, the season has an approval rating of 93%.
Created by two Canadians, hitchBOT successfully hitchhiked across both Canada and Europe before its ill-fated attempt to cross the US. The robot had a cylindrical body composed mainly of a plastic bucket and appeared to be gender-neutral.
EU committee
The report identified a number of ways robots could be protected by the law. These included the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI, and an advisory code of conduct for robotics engineers aimed at guiding the ethical design, production and use of robots.
Immanuel Kant
The German philosopher (1724-1804) is considered the most influential thinker of the Enlightenment era and one of the greatest Western philosophers of all time. He is best known for his works on epistemology (theory of knowledge), aesthetics and ethics.

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