Should Robot Workers Have Rights Too? An Argument For the Affirmative

by James “GS Edgeman” Riser Originally published in The Monsteropolis Times.

August 2nd, 200X -The sunrise woke me before my alarm did. I felt rested, even though my excitement prevented me from falling asleep right away the night before. I got dressed and set out to the local park a couple blocks away, where a crowd was already gathered around a small stage. An oddly stoic Doctor Albert Wily sat on stage along with two robots.

Across town the doctor's former partner and fellow Robot Institute of Technology alum, Doctor Thomas Light was busy preparing for his annual Festival of Robotics. The festival's an event where designers are able to showcase their new ideas and advancements in the field of robotic labor. This event's focus, however, is the exploitation of said robots.

As technology advances, new ethical questions arise almost everyday. The internet gives us almost unlimited access to information, some of which may be questionable and even dangerous for some individuals. Meanwhile, advancements in the field of manufacturing has already put many people out of jobs, and the presence of intelligent robot workers pushes this threat further. Of course, flesh and blood workers will be needed to create these mechanical assistants, but how far are we from creating factories that will require little to no human supervision?

Today's robots are programed to perform complicated and delicate tasks, which also means they have access to a wide range of thoughts and can even appear to experience a wide rage of emotions. To a casual observer, these machines appear to be sentient beings.

Currently, robots are employed in a variety of industries, from standing side by side with humans on car assembly lines to cutting trees with human landscapers. They work just as and, a lot of times, much harder than their human counter-parts, so some citizens are supporting the idea that current labor laws should be altered to encompass the fair treatment of robots.

I took my place in front of the stage just as Cut Man stepped up the podium. Cut Man has been working for Cut Man's Timber & Landscaping for over a year. While he is the namesake for the company, another individual owns and manages it. Many people hire the crew just to watch Cut Man sheer shrubs and cut down trees with his head mounted blades. He performs his work with the style and agility that only a robot is capable of, which many customers claim is a pleasure to witness. The crowd quieted as Cut Man began to speak.

“While we don't require the same things as humans to work, that doesn't mean that we can't be treated unfairly,” he said. “We require regular maintenance, but I've been worked for months without any. My blades were dull, and my joints worn. My metal no longer shined and only reflected my discontent.”

Cut Man is usually known for his kind, child like demeanor (another reason why people enjoy his presence) but on this day he spoke with the vigor and passion of a man. I noticed that he had paused to look back at Dr. Wily, who nodded, before continuing.

“If it wasn't for Mr. Doctor Albert Wily, who offered to perform regular repairs and maintenance free of charge, then I wouldn't have been able to continue my duties. I don't know if I can really feel the emotion of sadness, but it's possible that becoming useless, broken and having no work or purpose would be very similar. In the city's current situation, I would have been worked until I could no longer function and then thrown out. No one would have spoken up for me, and that's why we're speaking up for ourselves. We need rights, too! Thank you.”

As Cut Man turned to sit back down, his blades caught a glint of sunlight showing that Doctor Wily has done a great job with keeping Cut Man's blades sharp.

These workers may not be living and breathing, but Cut Man's words shows us that robots have needs too. This brings to mind psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, an idea usually represented as a pyramid.

At it's foundation is breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion. It also dictates that we need to secure our employment, living situations, and resources. As one moves up the pyramid, the goals become more abstract as we strive to find love, respect and self-esteem. At the top of the pyramid is self actualization, where we finally realize our full potential.

As Maslow himself put it, “What a man can be, he must be.” It also must be known that the process is never complete; one cannot become self actualized and be done with the psychological process, it's something we continuously strive for. This pyramid has been used many times by corporate managers as a guideline to keep their employees happy and productive.

With that in mind, I propose the idea of a Hierarchy of Robotic Needs:

Since robots don't need to breath or eat, the foundation will be replaced by maintenance and rest. Robots do not require sleep, but they cannot be worked endlessly. Under the safety level, security of body and resources should suffice. As Cut Man said, a robot's purpose is to work, so the love/belonging level will be reduced to simply “belonging.” The need in this category will be “work.” A robot without work is a being without purpose.

As things start to become more abstract, it's hard to identify what a robot would need, but from Cut Man's opening speech one can tell that a robot can feel a sense of achievement from a job well done, thus justifying their purpose and reason for existing. “Reason for existing” will lie at the top of this pyramid as it's a robot's main concern. Perhaps, in a hundred or so years scientists will create robots that can actually feel a full spectrum of emotions and make conscious decisions, but for now the closest thing that a robot will experience to happiness is a job well done and a reason to continue working as their programing dictates.

When looked at side by side, both pyramids have dramatic differences but there is one main aspect that can be said about humans and robots. The top level for humans says: “morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts,” but I think those all points to our own reasons for existing. Everyone goes through life scouring their activities and responsibilities for purpose.

The question often asked is, “what is the meaning of life?” I think the answer is the same for both: to justify our presence on this planet, and everyone does it in their own way. Even though Maslow died in the year 1970 and never got to witness the robotic revolution, I'm sure he would approve of the amendments I've made to his hierarchy. If the labor laws are ever to be rewritten to accommodate robots, I hope that lawmakers will consult ideas similar to ones presented in this modified pyramid.

Elec Man, who works at the city's biggest power plant, was the second to approach the podium. “My fellow workers,” he began, “I say that in hopes that we'll eventually stand side-by-side as workers, not as robot and human. We are both there to accomplish the same goal: a job well done. With that in mind, I implore you to support the revision of labor laws as it will benefit everyone who depends on the work that we do.”

Elec Man's official title is “Manager of Energy Output,” but feels that he is not recognized as such since his rights are not officially sanctioned. He then outlined his negative experiences while working at the plant, which include workers directly going against his directions and, similar to Cut Man, being overworked to the point of breakdown.

“It appears to me more and more that having rights is what makes you human, and also gives people a sense of superiority over others who don't. My plea isn't to be recognized as a human being. I am not. Rather, I'd like to be recognized as an equal worker.” With that, Elec Man took his seat, and to end the rally, Dr. Wily stood up and offered to repair any robots who've been mistreated, free of charge.

After the event, I tried to get a comment from Dr. Wily, but as I approached Cut Man stopped me and said that the doctor had many appointments to attend. I also tried to contact Dr. Light, but his lab assistant, Roll, informed me that he was also busy. I then asked her why hasn't Dr. Light been performing regular repairs on the robots he created. Roll told me that Dr. Light was never contacted by his robot's employers.

Does having rights make you human? That seems to be the question that permeates this debate. If so, then does that mean only humans are deserving of rights? These questions don't have simple answers and can't be solved until law makers sit down and take a serious inventory of the social climate that surrounds this issue.

In my opinion, if robot's are given the rights that they ask for it would incite aversion from many human workers. In the end, however, several industries will benefit from humans and robots viewing each other as equals. They're not asking to be considered human, but only for the removal of barriers that prevent them from fulling their reason to exist. What a robot can be, it must be.