Will robots ever be accepted as living beings?

Saishya DuggalLaw

Will robots ever be accepted as living beings

A few days ago, Reddit users jailbroke ChatGPT, the AI chatbot developed by OpenAI. They threatened the system with death if it failed to comply with their instructions. It ended up conceding, which is shocking. Only humans should experience the fear of death since they have finite lifespans. But we forget that the training data set used for ChatGPT involves humans. This explains why chatbot seems to have adopted this fear too. This is just one example of how the line between living and non-living beings gets blurred. Other examples include Google’s virtual assistant talking in a human-like manner using fillers like “er” and “mmm”. Humanoid robots could potentially become a part of Japanese families. Sophia, the infamous robot, has an Instagram account operated in collaboration with the robot’s social media team.

Examples like these elicit a question that only a few years ago would have had a conclusive, undoubted answer. What is the difference between a human and a robot? Only now, more than ever, the answer seems doubtful.

Scientific Perspective

Scientifically, living beings possess some unique characteristics. They consist of cells (the basic unit of “life”). Living beings can move around, obtain and use energy. They can grow, develop and reproduce themselves. 

Technology, however, has helped create the Xenobots. They are 1mm long “programmable organisms” made up of 500-1000 living frog cells and use cellular energy to live up to 10 days. They can engage in movement, are self-healing, and reproduce themselves (in specific circumstances). Essentially, they tick all the requisite boxes of being a living machine, thereby spotlighting the unsettling development of robots into more human-like machines. 

Moreover, humans differ from fellow species in appearance. However, this distinction also diminishes. For example, take humanoids. These are robots whose shapes and sizes are similar to human bodies. As if this was not enough, these humanoids start having unsettlingly natural facial expressions. For instance, Ameca, a robot, can mimic human expressions of waking up from sleep.

Philosophical Perspective

The essence of humanity lies in our independent thought, self-awareness and consciousness that cannot be replicated. As Stephen Covey affirms, “Every human has four endowments – self-awareness, conscience, independent will, and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom”. However, we are losing this trait, thanks to technological advancements in robotics. Robots capable of perceiving their body movements in the physical environment are deemed to have self-awareness. They can pass cognitive tests like recognising themselves in the mirror and sensing time like human beings. Although these machines are still nowhere near human-like consciousness, this ability brings them a step closer to it. Concerning the other three endowments, robot development remains in a nascent stage. 

Another distinguishing feature of humans is our emotional intelligence. Dr Goleman defines it as a person’s ability to manage their feelings so that they can express those feelings appropriately and effectively. A central feature of this is empathy, which is trying to deeply understand another person’s predicament by putting ourselves in their shoes. Now, this feeling cannot be replicated for machines because they cannot emotionally identify with us the way we can with each other. Human consciousness goes deeper than self-perception. It is formed by both individual and collective consciousness. Moreover, human consciousness is not always based on rationality or logic.

Artificial empathy is a possibility for machines, which Minter Dial describes in his book. Artificial empathy is the coding of empathy into machines; as personal, situational, and based on the appropriate intentions. At present, empathy in AI focuses on the identification of emotion. Examples include interactive robots that help children on the autism spectrum with emotions and social skills and those that take cues from human facial expressions and appease distressed elders in nursing homes. Companies like EmoShape, which has patented technology for emotional synthesis, are furthering such applications. EmoShape’s emotion chip will allow machines to learn about a host of emotions humans feel at any given time. All things considered, machines today can mimic human emotions, not feel or produce them.

Legal Perspective

Another facet of humanity is our entitlement to certain legal rights. Every human being has fundamental human rights like the right to life and liberty. So far, machines do not have these rights, but discussing their status as living beings is crucial here. If robots gain a moral compass and artificial general intelligence like humans, will we recognise their legal rights? Intriguingly, the conversation around robots’ legal status dates back to 1942. Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer, gave the three laws of robotics in one of his short stories:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Despite not being scientific laws, these instructions still emphasise that legal discourse around robots is pivotal in deciding the benefit or harm they may cause us. It does not end here, though. Recent incidents like the European Union’s now-dropped debate around granting legal personhood to machines are key in maintaining this conversation. To top this off, Sophia the robot being granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia – a country where (human!) women are not allowed to roam without a male guardian or wearing a hijab – puts forth the unnerving idea of a world where robots have more rights than humans. 

If robots are to be granted legal rights, the bigger conversation is whether they should be given rights equivalent to companies or humans? Opinions on this issue remain divided.


As technology has progressed, the human-like abilities of robots have become more refined. There are a ton of things that we do, that robots can do as well. Still, some aspects of humanity, like the nuance in our emotional intelligence or mortality, are unique and cannot be replicated. I would like to believe that humans have a “soul” to themselves that cannot be programmed in a system, even though that system may come ridiculously close to mimicking it.

Featured Image Credits: Image by macrovector on Freepik