Futurist,  TNet

Do Robots Deserve the Right to Unionize?

Posted to TNet: Mon, June 10, 2013 | By: B. J. Murphy

In 1979, sociologist Prof. Albert J. Szymanski once said:

“The energy for change comes from the emotions. It comes from feelings of frustration that arise when people’s needs are not met. If people were computers that could be programmed to do anything their masters wanted, there would be no pressure for change, even if some computers were treated much worse than others… But people have physical and emotional needs that cannot be met in a class society which gives power and wealth to some at the expense of others.” (Szymanski, Sociology, p. 321)

And while I certainly agree in the context of his time period, as both a socialist and Transhumanist, living during the technological era of the 21st century, I’m forced to look back on this quote and ask myself: But what if computers had emotions? What if they became sentient? Would they not then have the same emotional drives to enjoy the fruits of their labor as their fellow Human workers? Would they not have the right to unionize and fight for better working conditions?

Before getting into the question of whether or not a robot has the right to collectively bargain, I feel that it’s necessary to first address consciousness, our search for sentient beings, and our means of defining sentience. These are, after all, the ultimate questions and, consequently, ultimate drivers of how we’ll answer the question of whether or not robots deserve the right to unionize alongside their fellow workers.

It comes down to, I believe, the old philosophical concept: “Cogito ergo sum.” The phrase’s definition has certainly changed since Descartes’ era and the publishing of his magnum opus Discourse on the Method. ‘I think, therefore I am’ no longer applies to Man in the gender-sense. In fact, it no longer solely applies to mankind in general. What followed mankind was a good portion of the rest of the animal kingdom.

And now, during our current era of exponentially advancing technology, A.I., and digital autonomy, we’re forcing ourselves to rethink again the old 17th-century philosophical concept in order to brace ourselves for the next coming self-aware being – the robot.

But then, where Descartes differentiated conscious thought from the behavior of automata, how then will we approach the question of automata-thought when said automata acquire sentience – self-conscious awareness? Obviously the robot would begin by trying to prove its sentience to the court via the Turing Test. How we would approach a robot seeking approval and validation of what it already knows is an entirely different question. What demands would we necessitate? How constrained should said robot be to be viewed positively under the court’s biased observation?

Anthropocentrism or Anthropomorphism?

I ask this because, even to this day, we remain fixated on searching for sentience under the “microscope” known as ourselves – our own species. We convince ourselves that there lives a dichotomy between our observations, and the true answer of our curiosity will lie under one side of that dichotomy or the other. This false dichotomy is between Anthropocentrism and Anthropomorphism.

There’s a very thin line between Anthropocentrism and Anthropomorphism, I’ve come to believe. Where the former regards Humans as being the most important sentient being on the planet, the latter still looks to Humans as being the model which everything else should extol and be like. In the end, whatever route you take in your view of all that is nonhuman, Homo sapiens remains the dominant model to “everything a species should be.”

Whenever we search for sentient beings, I believe it’s best that we leave out anything “Human” in our search and instead fixate on consciousness itself. “Cogito ergo sum” should be the dominant means of searching for sentience. As mentioned above, since the coining of that phrase by Descartes, its very definition has changed several times – from including white women, to anyone who wasn’t white, to even several different nonhuman animal species. Meaning, humans weren’t really the “first conscious beings”, thus not necessarily a model of what “should be”.

I fear that, when automata become the next sentient beings we discover, our fixations on either Anthropocentrism or Anthropomorphism will consequently lead us to never truly accept their sentience until they’re in every way like us – aging, suffering, biologically limited slabs of meat. Essentially, we’d become the next oppressors.

In fact, it reminds me of the famous science-fiction film Bicentennial Man. In this film an android known as Andrew is first taken up as a serving droid for a rich family. As time goes by, this family begins recognizing Andrew’s self-independence, resulting in their teaching him all that they can, giving him a bank account, and eventually his freedom.

Several years later, Andrew falls in love with a future relative of the family he once served. During this process, Andrew comes across a bio-robotics engineer named Rupert Burns. Together, through Rupert’s engineering skills and Andrew’s substantial income from the carpentry designs he did several years back, they’re able to mimic almost everything that is to be Human and attach it to Andrew. But the one thing that drives Andrew most of all is the woman he fell in love with. And in order to officiate their wish for marital status, Andrew must go before the court and have them recognize his sentience.

Unfortunately his attempts fail, with the judge leaving behind a very staggering comment: “Society can tolerate an immortal robot, but we will never tolerate an immortal human. It arouses too much jealousy, too much anger. I’m sorry Andrew, but this court cannot, and will not, validate your humanity.”

As a result, Andrew goes against his love for life and, with the help of his friend Rupert, takes the step of achieving mortality. Several years later, Andrew makes one last attempt, having aged considerably and on the brink of death.

President Marjorie Bota: Andrew Martin.

Andrew Martin: I’ve always tried to make sense of things. There must be some reason I am as I am. As you can see, Madame Chairman, I am no longer immortal.

President: You have arranged to die?

Andrew: In a sense I have. I am growing old, my body is deteriorating, and like all of you, will eventually cease to function. As a robot, I could have lived forever. But I tell you all today, I would rather die a man, than live for all eternity a machine.

President: Why do you want this?

Andrew: To be acknowledged for who and what I am, no more, no less. Not for acclaim, not for approval, but the simple truth of that recognition. This has been the elemental drive of my existence, and it must be achieved, if I am to live or die with dignity.

The court informs Andrew that it will need some time to consider everything said before reaching a conclusion. Knowing this, Andrew waits despite his life slipping away more imminently than ever. While on his death bed, next to the love of his life, the court reaches a decision: Andrew is officially recognized as Human. But before Andrew is to hear those words, he dies.

This is a very sad ending, in my opinion – to see Andrew thrive due to the people around him recognizing his sentience and love of life, only to then be shot down by a biased court until he becomes every bit of Human, including our species’ mortality. It’s also worrisome whether or not a similar scenario will occur in our near future, when a robot seeks to prove to the court his/her sentience by passing the Turing Test. Even if/when the robot passes the test, will the court be open-minded enough to accept the results? Or will the robot be forced to take on a correlating path to that of Andrew Martin? As Andrew would say quite often throughout the film, “This will not do.”

Robots Collectively Bargaining

As shown in the film mentioned above, where the common layperson recognized Andrew’s sentience, and thus Andrew’s deserving of every right humans themselves attain, the court refused to accept that society was ready for robots to attain recognition of their sentience, let alone basic rights, due to Andrew being immortal. While this certainly brings up other important questions, like how courts or governments will react to our species achieving “immortality” – or better termed, indefinite life extension – for now we’ll stick with the question of robots and their attainment of basic living and working rights.

According to Article 23 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is said:

  • Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

And according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, “The freedoms to associate and to bargain collectively are fundamental rights”. Furthermore:

“Collective bargaining, as a way for workers and employers to reach agreement on issues affecting the world of work, is inextricably linked to freedom of association. The right of workers and employers to establish their independent organizations is the basic prerequisite for collective bargaining and social dialogue. The right to strike has been recognized internationally as a fundamental right of workers and their organizations and as an intrinsic corollary to the right to organize.”

As one can already notice, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights still adheres to the biased outlook of sentience being everything Human. This will become a struggle in itself, and likely will spark another Civil Rights movement in similar magnitudes as seen during the Civil Rights marches for African-American rights, for Women’s rights, and, as we’re currently witnessing, for Immigration rights.

Robotic rights will be one of the greatest questions asked in the 21st century. Protests will emerge, riots will erupt, conflicts between robot-rights advocates and neo-Luddites will be aroused – making this question all the more complex and controversial. And yet no robot has yet acquired sentience and gone before the courts to validate it.

But let’s just assume that these robots have since passed the Turing Test, and thus had their sentience validated. Does this then mean they attain the right to acquire every other right given to their fellow Human workers? If not, why not? Surely the argument of their efficiency being enough reason not to attain union rights hardly merits validity, given the fact that every Human worker attains greater or lesser efficiency, compared to others in his or her line of work.

You can’t argue that they’re “not alive” or “aren’t consciously aware” of their being alive, given the already established fact that they are sentient beings – meaning, they’re both alive and consciously aware of their being alive. So how about their level of susceptibility of being exploited by the company they work for? Surely machines are, as are humans, used to build and design their products as fast as possible with as little pay as possible to achieve the highest amount of profits possible. With the robots being sentient – thus alive, with emotions and needs – are they not just as susceptible as humans to being exploited for their labor, regardless of the gap between a human’s and a robot’s efficiency in said labor?

Emotionally driven remarks of robots “stealing our jobs” will also emerge, even as their sentience is validated. But then, even if technological unemployment emerges, would this not then provide more of an open room for people to do what they’ve dreamed of doing, to start careers that better fit their ideal dreams? (See: Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK by Federico Pistono.) An even better question would be, “Wouldn’t the robots also deserve to do as they pleased, rather than be forced into pre-determined labors?”

What we’re talking about here is a full-scale emersion of a human-robot work (and living) force. But then, again, how will we react when the machines we’re deeming as “robbers of our jobs” begin demanding their right to unionize and attain every bit of the rights we, as humans, equally attain?

According to philosopher Richard A. Cohen:

“The humanity of the human does not arise from an animal or machine evidencing logic or the rationality of means and ends… Rather, the humanity of the human arises when an animal or any being, is moved not by efficiency but by morality and justice. A being becomes moral and just when in its very sensibility, and across the pacific medium of language, it finds itself desiring an undesirable and insatiable service for the other, putting the other’s need before its own.” (Cohen, Ethics and cybernetics, pp. 164-165)

While this is certainly a very useful factor to look at when studying robots, especially robots which seek to pass the Turing Test, I also find this to be an interesting question for those studying the robots as well. Whenever we’d see injustice occurring at the expense of a robot – i.e., having to protest because the company they work for isn’t living up to its promise to allow them to unionize – and then do nothing about it, would we not then be betraying Richard Cohen’s definition of what makes someone “Human” – to be “moved… by morality and justice”?

This is one of the many reasons why I refuse to look at the search for sentience in robotics under either an Anthropocentric or Anthropomorphic point of view. Both rely too heavily on the sole understanding of humans, rather than consciousness itself.

Instead of looking to Cohen for a sufficient means of how we should address robots – especially sentient ones – I find that Cynthia L. Breazeal’s understanding of humans’ and robots’ relationship with one another merits greater justice for both:

“A sociable robot is able to communicate and interact with us, understand and even relate to us, in a personal way. It should be able to understand itself and us in social terms. We, in turn, should be able to understand it in the same social terms – to be able to relate to it and to empathize with it.” (Breazeal, Designing Sociable Robots, p. 1)

So should robots be able to unionize? Unfortunately, this question will not be solely answered by the court via a Turing Test. A court’s decision of a robot’s sentience will come as a result of pressure by the masses who are fighting for robotic rights, which also includes the pressure given by robots themselves as they protest and commit civil-disobedience. The question of a robot’s sentience will be answered by the majority of the populace before the courts ever find the heart to recognize it as well.

Though I’m sure this will be a controversial thing to say sooner or later, I do believe robots deserve the right to unionize alongside Human workers. After all, as the old saying goes:

Workers of the world, unite!


Breazeal, Cynthia L. Designing Sociable Robots. A Bradford Book, 2004.

Cohen, Richard A. Ethics and Cybernetics: Levinasian Reflections. Ethics and Information Technology, 2000.

International Labour Organization. http://www.ilo.org/declaration/principles/freedomofassociation/lang–en/index.htm

Szymanski, Albert J. Sociology: Class, Consciousness, and Contradictions. Van Nostrand, 1979.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a23

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