How We Treat Animals Will Inform Our Future With Robots
Evan Selinger in conversation with Kate Darling from MIT Media Lab
This is Open Dialogue, an interview series from OneZero about technology and ethics.
A few years ago, I read a fascinating paper by Kate Darling, a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab, that left a lasting impression. In “Extending Legal Protection to Social Robots: The Effects of Anthropomorphism, Empathy, and Violent Behavior Towards Robotic Objects,” Kate clarifies how easy it is, given the way the human mind works, for us to become emotionally attached to all kinds of robots — robots that have humanlike, animal-like, or even basic lifelike features. Given this tendency, she proposed a radical idea: granting robots some legal protections. Kate’s core insight is that as humanlike robots become more advanced and more deeply integrated into society, we should be wary of people becoming accustomed to mistreating them.
Simply put, if society doesn’t care about people verbally or physically abusing humanlike robots, we might be in for a rude awakening. Permitting people to do vile things to robots that resemble us might lead us to develop bad habits — habits that incline us to do the same awful things to other humans. From this perspective, protecting robots might be essential for protecting ourselves. Kate’s explanation that robo-abuse might pose a severe problem for us thus runs counter to the dominant philosophical discussion of robot rights — conversations that focus on whether robots could ever deserve rights to protect their interests and possibly even dignity.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Evan: I’m thrilled to talk with you and explore some of the ideas in your new book, The New Breed: What Our History With Animals Reveals About Our Future With Robots. To be honest, I’m jealous. My daughter is excited to read it, and she hasn’t read my last book!
Kate: Sorry, but yours warns about a possible dystopian future, and mine is about cute animals.
Evan: We’re living in a strange time. The pandemic is affecting everything, and isolation has become a substantial problem. Innovative solutions…