Machine Minds: Frontiers in Legal Personhood

Machine Minds: Frontiers in Legal Personhood


Evan J. Zimmerman

University of Chicago

February 12, 2015





Research is at the point where we might have to confront the possibility of what computer scientists call “strong AI” in the coming years. A strong AI could be intelligent by most reasonable definitions of the word, and possibly have a subjective experience. It stands to reason that we must seriously consider whether such a machine should have its will recognized, protected, and enabled . That is to say, such a sufficiently advanced machine might be said to carry responsibilities, and rights, on its own, as a legal person.

This question is wrapped up in significant philosophical and technical questions o f acceptability and feasibility . The novelty of this Essay is that it provides a p ositive reason to grant such rights with a basis in technical law , along with a concrete definition and justification for personhood . The organizing principle this Essay arrives at is: Personhood exists to protect conscious individuals from suffering and allow them exercise their wills, subject to their intelligence.

This Essay examines several documents across a variety of fields, as well as historical records. Examples such as corporate law, personhood law, slavery law, and standing law demonstrate that t he story of personhood is a history of grappling with what is fully conscious, and how to allow these consciousness’s to exercise their will and avoid pain . However, because law was made by and for humans , by examining the law surrounding animal welfare an d humans in a vegetative state, one finds that the law privileges humanity. Hence, our laws imply that a computer, if it is intelligent enough, should be considered conscious; however, our laws as they are would arbitrarily not provide it personhood simply because it is not made of flesh and blood.


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