Review of Robot Rights

Robot Rights
David J. Gunkel

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018
256 pp., illus. 1 b&w. Trade, £27.00
ISBN: 9780262038621256.

Reviewed by
Eugenia Stamboliev
September 2019

The title Robot Rights immediately struck me as problematic. But this hesitation – anticipated by Gunkel in the first chapter – became a motivator to engage with this publication. Gunkel does not aim to resolve any dispute on robots (not) deserving any rights; he instead brings up different camps, arguments, and concerns to discuss, and then challenge, the view on robots as anthropomorphic entities. Despite a lack of agreement on what robots actually are, Gunkel advocates in the last chapter that to understand robots ethically, we must take a relational approach to robotic agency and status, not an ontological one.

Gunkel begins by contextualising the initial resistance of debating robot rights as he works around this critical reflex from researchers and various legal bodies, such as EU institutions. He grounds this by synthesising historical and theoretical discussions that exceed robotics literature, science fiction dreams, and philosophical simplifications. To create a framework for discussing robot rights, he then applies a Humean approach “to recognise how the verbs “is” and “ought” organise qualitatively different kinds of statements and modes of inquiry. The former concerns ontological matters or statements of fact; the latter consists in axiological decisions involving what should be done or what ought to be done” (4). Consequently, the middle chapters address four angles through which robots – could/should; could/should not; could not/should not; and could not/should – have rights. It seems as if Gunkel uses the question on robot rights as a ‘backdoor’ to discuss how we have been assigning/depriving rights historically – be it to humans, animals, or to robots. Within these categories, different agency statuses and perspectives are brought up and linked to wider frame works like ontology/ethics, appearance, anthropocentrism, moral sentimentalism, legal arguments – only to name a few

The historical background on robots as mechanic slaves seems worth mentioning as this topic receives more attention recently. By revisiting this problematic ambition, Gunkel unpacks the wide-ranging statuses of robots today – between agents, bodies, tools, objects, workers, or companions, which guide their legal and moral status equally. He significantly links historical property, ownership, and slavery debates to the very act of designing robots and to robot imaginaries in early cybernetics and science fiction (section 4.2.3 Slavery 2.0) shifting our awareness to a crucial and neglected contingency; between robotic design and racializing practices engrained in the mechanisations of human bodies and labour (For more on this, see Atanasoski & Vora, 2019; or Rhee, 2018).

Gunkel’s major contribution, however, is in the final chapter in which he offers a progressive perspective on thinking otherwise (p. 159) as he contests ontological and dichotomous views by repositioning robots as relational others. Inspired by the philosophy of Levinas’ on difference, face-to-face responsibility, and the ethics of otherness, Gunkel hereby suggests that we must rethink otherness, instead of tracing and reducing ‘apparent’ (or ‘essential’) differences between robots and humans. This shift is intended to interrupt an associative chain between human resemblance, personhood, and moral/legal rights. For readers unfamiliar with Levinas, or with poststructuralist ethics, this last chapter could be a difficult read, despite Gunkel’s clear contextualisation of a complex philosophical tradition. Yet, it is a crucial outlook, since it highlights concerns on how the resemblance of the robot body and face to human features still guides essentialist and anthropomorphic pseudo-causalities around their status.

Gunkel’s ethical reformulation is more than timely and needed, but I miss a discussion between the relational approach and the legal or commercial intricacies around, for instance, humanoid care robots, which also impact privacy or ownership rights of vulnerable people exposed to them. Clearly, this is not central to his philosophical contestation of the “very means by which we have gone about trying to articulate and formulate this problem [the moral and legal status of robots] and its investigation” (p. 185). Hence, questions on the legal concerns around the implementations of robots as digital commodities fall short.

Robot Rights offers a valuable discussion on how to critically contextualise the moral and legal status of technological manifestations like robots. Although, it essentially destabilises the very ground for thinking robotic ontologies so that research can move beyond ‘fun’ questions on personhood (according to Floridi, p. 37) towards exploring concerns on robots as new forms of digital agencies. This book could be demanding for those only used to digesting philosophical backdrops; or for those not familiar with robotics, and robot ethics. However, for those interested in critical or posthumanist theories, yet unaware of relational or affective turns, or posthumanist critique of anthropocentric ethics; it is worth reading, especially, the last chapter. Simultaneously, it demands some attention from digital media researchers/posthumanist philosophers who often dismiss robots as foreign to their research, and risk giving over a pressing discussion on this contested digital technology to robotics-led disciplines completely.