This researcher has an interesting theory for why robots need legal rights
Which is why Yueh-Hsuan Weng, a research associate and co-founder of the ROBOLAW.ASIA Initiative at Peking University, says we need a set of laws that will guide how humans interact with robots.
Weng is specifically advocating to give robots a special legal status called the "Third Existence," which aims to help protect robots, as well as their owners.
"My main argument is that the current laws do not help human beings to project their empathy while interacting with humanoid robots," Weng told Tech Insider via email.
For example, if someone were to walk up to your pet and injure it, the person reliable can be found legally liable for the damage he or she has caused. His argument is that this kind of accountability helps ensure humans display a certain amount of empathy when interacting with animals.
Weng's Third Existence looks to put the same concept in place, except for intelligent robots instead of pets.
The Third Existence would protect humans as well. If you're bitten by someone's pet, for example, the pet owner is liable for that attack. If a robot were to commit some kind of wrongdoing, the robot's owner (not the manufacturer) would become liable.
Weng's advocacy came to the forefront of public dialogue when surveillance footage showed a drunk man kick a humanoid robot called Pepper, Fortune reported.
The 60-year-old man, Kiichi Ishikawa, kicked Pepper in a fit of rage, damaging the robot to the point that it moves slower. Ishikawa was arrested for his misdeed, but the most he is liable for is damage to property.
But Weng said this incident shows how laws need to be changed to better protect robots.
"When I heard about this footage, my reaction was not surprise at all as incidents like this one have occurred before," Weng wrote in an email to Tech Insider. "During the 19th century, steam powered locomotives were deemed 'monsters' and therefore inappropriately treated in Shanghai and Yokohama when they were initially introduced to the Asian society."
But robots, unlike your dog or cat, are not self-aware. Pepper may have been damaged when he was kicked, but he's incapable of processing the event that occurred. So why should robots have special legal rights when they aren't sentient?
Weng answered that legal rights need to be established regardless as robots become more integrated into our daily life for safety reasons.
"For the foreseeable future, robots will be 'objects of law' even if they can't feel or think," he explained.
A "Robot Safety Governance Act" will help ensure future robot-human interactions are safe, he said.
Gurvinder Virk, a professor of robotics at the University of Gävle in Sweden, chaired a committee that put together the first safety protocol in place for personal care robots, which was published February 2014. The protocol outlines safe human-robot interactions to provide legal liability in case an accident occurs.
In an email exchange with Tech Insider, Virk said that safety regulations such as this one are necessary because current regulations only apply to industrial robots and don't account for humanoid ones.
Virk said he thinks as robots become more advanced, they will need greater protection.
"Maybe robots are OK to be treated as 'any other product' at the moment but when the degree of autonomy has advanced much more, maybe we will need to think of more specific rules and regulations to accommodate the advanced intelligent robots and robot systems," he said.