Property relations – Is property a person? Extending the Rights of Property Owners Through the Rights of Robotic Machines

Part of proceedings of Machine Ethics and Machine Law Workshop, Krakow 2016

Property relations – Is property a person? The logic of capitalism and extending the Rights of Property Owners Through the Rights of Robotic Machines
Kathleen Richardson
Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility
De Montfort University


A small but vocal community in AI and robotics is calling for the recognition of the rights of machines, even suggesting that robots are slaves because they are used as instruments. I want to suggest that these scholars logic only make sense when you accept the formulations of slavery as formulated by Aristotle in the Politics. Advocates of slavery confuse what it means to be a person or a thing, making persons into things (instruments) for exploitation, and things (robots and AI) into persons. While formal ideas of slavery have been abolished in Europe and North America, I want to suggest that the ideas presented by Aristotle are very much present in contemporary narratives of robotics and AI. I suggest what it at work is ‘property relations’ which encourages humans to think of themselves as property, to re-classify property (AI and robots) as types of persons.

Rights for Machines

In the fields of AI and robotics, new narratives are arising that advocate the breakdown of distinctions between what is human and machine/person and thing. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee ‘In an extreme view, the world can be seen as only as connections, nothing else’ (cited in Rich- ardson 2015, p. 1). Moreover, symmetries between humans and machines and persons and things occur because fundamentally they share no essentialist criteria, there is nothing essentially different from being a person or a thing as Donna Haraway suggested in her essay A Cyborg Manifes- to (2006). Recently, such positions have manifested in pa- pers that advocate for a Rights discourse to be extended to artificial agents (Gunkle, 1994). In fashionable theories that dominated some European academic departments in the late 1990s and 2000s such as actor-network theory (ANT) (Latour 2012) or transhumanism (Bostrom 2005) in different ways asserted the dissolution of distinctions be- tween person and things. In the category of persons, I place human beings. In the category of things I include all hu- man made artefacts. It is not possible for me to address the issue of animals in this paper, but to say that all living beings have an existence outside of property and need to ad- dressed differently. For now we are interested in how the humanmade category of property is used as way of relating to humans. Robots and AI are considered highly prized humanmade artefacts, because in making these objects, techno-scientists can mobilize a framework that is distinct from magic (Musial 2016) or animistic thinking (Richard- son 2016*) to justify such claims, using science fiction often as the backdrop to explore what is on the horizon technologically. What I want to suggest is philosophies which advocate the breakdown of distinctions between persons and things are revised versions of arguments for slavery. I call these revised arguments property relations. Property relations express the outlook of property owners, those few individuals in the global economy that significantly profit from sets of ideas that can be made use of to create new markets and new forms of exploitation. This has led to new alliances forming between academics in AI and robotics and Silicon Valley billionaires such as the Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford), the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge, UK) and the Future of Life Institute (US). In property relations, persons are things and things have the potential to become persons. Moreover, property relations is now entering a new phase of development, as human beings are encouraged to form relationships with property (robots and AI), and the person is encouraged to look upon the self (body, ideas, feelings, identity) as property. Rather than abolish slavery, these trends reveal the original idea of slavery, as advocated by Aristotle are present in contemporary narratives of robots and AI as well as critical perspectives articulated by Hara- way (2006) and actor network theory (Latour 2012).

Slavery: Persons as Things

In the Politics, Aristotle (1992) created a formal philosophical framework for the reduction of persons to things argu- ing that slaves, women and children were different kinds of property of Man. In this paper, I will explore Aristotle’s points about slaves as tools and demonstrate how his ideas persist today in the fields of AI and Robotics. In the Poli- tics, Aristotle created a framework for AI and robotics:

1. Dissolution of distinction between persons and things

‘Tools may be animate as well as inanimate…a slave is a sort of living piece of property’ (cited in Richardson 2016, p. 50).

2. Non-empathetic relations

‘So a slave is not only his master’s slave but belongs to him tout court, while the master is his slave’s master but does not belong to him’ (cited in Richardson 2016, p. 51).

3. The animation of tools

‘For suppose that every tool could perform its task either at our bidding or itself perceiving the need,…then master- craftsmen would have no need of servants nor masters of slaves’ (cited in Richardson 2016, p.50).

Advocates of robots rights and ending robot ‘slavery’ suggest that these extensions of rights to artefacts come as a consequence of recognition of rights of slaves, people of colour, women and children, but on the contrary, this perspective, is inside the framework of pro-slavery. There was never a human need for slavery. There was never a need for Men to create systems of rule over another and relate to other men, women and children as property. Apologists for Aristotle suggest that slavery was a natural condition of society at the time. This is not the case. In the Politics, Aristotle makes one small reference to anti-slavery citizens writing ‘Others say that it is contrary to nature to rule as master over slave, because the distinction between slave and free one is one of convention only, and in nature there is no difference, so that this form of rule is based on force and is therefore not just’ (cited in Richardson 2016, p. 50).

People are people and things are things

Human rights discourses have developed in two distinct ways in the history of humanity. The first is to recognize that persons are not things, they are different from instru- ments and tools and cannot be treated as such. The second is as means to prevent rebellions (Dworkin and MacKinnon (1988). Inanimate tools (unlike like animate ones in the form of slaves) are easier to control, have fewer needs, wants and desires. An extreme form of the instrumentalisation of persons today is present in the prostitution industry. In the prostitution industry, women (the main product is women) are bought, sold, rented and traded. They are re- lated to as things, and not persons. The buyers of these bodies for sex are allowed to relate to persons as instruments. It should be no surprise then that advocates of sex robots (Levy and Loebner 2007) make analogies between dolls, robots, general consumerist behaviors and women in prostitution. The widespread use of female and children’s bodies as instruments (animate tools), and non-empathetic relational ontologies present in today’s prostitution indus- try are carried over into sex robot narratives. I propose those who advocate on the rights of machines and encour- age relationships with property (social robots, sex robots, companion robots, robot friends etc.,) should be seen as a disturbing consequence of property relations.


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