Do robots deserve rights? The question is less ridiculous than it sounds. As scientists develop ever more sophisticated robots, we are faced with an ethical dilemma: When does artificial intelligence demand humane treatment?
In the last month, Japanese scientists have unveiled robots capable of serving food and even playing the violin and trumpet. These aren't self-aware robots -- many scientists deride the notion of ever creating a robot capable of self-awareness -- but self-awareness isn't the sole qualifier for rights. Certain severely brain-damaged human beings and newborns lack general self-awareness, but there is little doubt that they have rights, no matter what "ethicist" Peter Singer says.
Once we remove the requirement of self-awareness, the case for robot rights becomes compelling. Robot intelligence is now measured in human terms -- robots, we often hear, may have the intelligence of a 2-year-old. Robots can be programmed to respond to their environment; they can be programmed to perform complex tasks.
At the most basic level, there is only one element separating human beings from robots: the soul. Religious people, by and large, believe that God endowed human beings with a spark of Himself. That spark is manifest in free will, the ability to rise above our genetic code and our environment and act morally. Even if certain human beings are so constrained by their physical limitations that they cannot manifest that free will, the spark of God remains present.
Atheists deny the soul -- and by extension, they must deny the possibility of free will. If there is no supernatural element to human beings, we are merely genetic robots responding to our environment. Humanity evolved based on the interaction between our DNA and our environment; our behavior is preordained. We are programmed by nature in the same way robots are programmed by human beings. We do not have the ability to rise above our natures because we are our natures.
When the atheist speaks of human rights, therefore, he cannot speak of rights unique to human beings -- he must speak of rights that extend to animals or even robots. Nothing separates human beings from animals in the atheist view, beyond our higher-level genetic ordering.
The consistent atheist, then, must create a blanket regime of rights encompassing all creatures with DNA, or he must link rights to genetic superiority. The first option makes a mockery of rights -- if we insist on the right to life for each blade of grass, we become a civilization of J. Alfred Prufrocks. The second option discards rights altogether -- a genetics-linked rights regime is merely Social Darwinism.