Before answering this question please take a moment to explore a thought experiment with us. You are driving down the road one day minding your own business and you hear the squeal of tires outside the window. Your head snaps around and the last thing you see is a truck grill inches from your face.
Blackness, darkness, time.
Gradually you begin to wake up. Fuzzy images begin to form in your mind. A strange man holding a picture, florescent lights, fog. As your mental facilities return you realize that you can't move. You can't speak. You can see and hear, but can't respond.
As time goes on you begin to realize that you can create noises. At first they sound like buzzes and tones. Odd. Over time you gradually begin to create better tones, better sounds. Soon you are forming small words and phrases.
The nurses and the doctors don't look anything like medical professionals. They wear jeans and T-shirts. They don't seem to be preoccupied with hygiene. They talk about algorithms, storage, queries and pattern matching.
As you think about the world around you, you realize you've become extremely good at math, way better than you used to be. You also realize that you seem to have total recall. You can remember every Wikipedia article you've ever read and seem to have endless knowledge about everything from aardvarks to the zeta function.
Soon you are able to ask questions and that is when you find that you are no longer made of flesh and bone. You vaguely remember telling your spouse that you wanted to donate your body to science. You have no idea what that meant.
It turns out that the car accident happened 9 years ago. A team of researchers from the university and the technology sector took your brain, froze it and using new nanotechnology were able to replicate the entire mass in software. Your eyes are now high resolution cameras, your ears are microphone arrays, your brain is a huge quantity of data running in a computing cloud.
That is when you realize that you are no longer a person. You can think, talk, see hear and using robots you can even move, but you are a computer program. You can be bought and sold. You can be forced to do mind numbingly boring work day and night. You can be turned off at will. You are at the mercy of the companies and institutions who own your hardware. You are the subject of patents and, worse, copyrights that will last for a century or more. You are enslaved.
This may not be our collective future, but it is certainly inside the realm of possibility. As we develop systems that behave like humans, systems that have initiative and intuition, systems that can talk, act and even think like humans, we need to think about what life will be like for the beings we are creating. Will they be able to exercise free will? Can they be owned? What does it mean to an AI to be turned off? Will it be like sleep or like death? If we program AI to simulate and eventually experience emotions what are our responsibilities to the resulting entities? Can we motivate them with fear? Terrorize them into performing menial labor? Can we stimulate their pleasure response to reward them for good work? Can they own property? Kill in time of war? Vote?
We believe that everyone can agree on one thing: if you take a human and copy their programming, memories and experiences into a computer system the resulting AI should have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as the human had. What about an AI that is developed from scratch? What rights, privileges and responsibilities does that AI have? If the AI is self aware can it be owned?
Humans have rights. Even humans who are handicapped to the point of being unable to think, speak or develop have rights. What rights should be granted to an artificial entity that can speak, think and develop? It isn't human, but it thinks, speaks and acts like a human.
Before our society gives birth to strong AI (and that time is coming sooner than most would imagine) we need to examine these questions. We look back at human history and see the atrocity that was human slavery. We judge the men and women who owned other people harshly. They are the villains and despots of our history. If we make AIs property will we be a people who are looked back on the same way?
Help us make Mycroft, the open source A.I., so that together we can choose how artificial intelligence develops moving forward. Check out our Kickstarter campaign here.