The Future of the Rights Movement #79 #cong16

By Belinda Brummer.

We humans have relied on machines for centuries to help us with work. Wheel. Locomotive. Washing machine. We take these conveniences for granted when all things digital consumes our attention. We hardly notice just how hard the machines are working away. They are machines after all; not workers, right? And if they are not workers, they don’t have rights, do they? And if they don’t have rights then fair treatment, protection from exploitation and suffering don’t apply to them, surely? What we know, for sure, is that human understanding and knowledge grows. And with that, despite competing values and perspectives, life has improved for humanity. 

Machine capability is advancing. Rapidly. The more sophisticated and capable they become, the more likely we will face this fundamental question:  What are the incremental significant moments that will result in worker rights for machines? 

But humans have a sketchy record of dealing with the recognition of rights. Be they related to owning property or being owned as property; statutory or natural; being a woman, a child, LGBTQ, disabled, an immigrant, a human, an animal, or any other right we take for granted. As well as those we are still championing for or fighting to be recognised and protected.

A simple example of our sketchiness is how long it has taken the civilisations in the West to recognise the distinct rights of children. In 1802 Great Britain introduced the (first) Factory Act. This was a significant but small step (1) was taken to address the suffering of children brought on by the Industrial Revolution. (2)

“These were the real David Copperfields and Oliver Twists. Beaten, exploited and abused, they never knew what it was to have a full belly or a good night's sleep. Their childhood was over before it had begun.” 

It took another 50 years for real change to happen and for children, at least under the age of 10, to have the right to a better existence. The change came indirectly, targeting the enforcement of access to education. Only as recently as 1992 did Ireland sign up to the newly introduced United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. “The Convention changed the way children are viewed and treated – i.e., as human beings with a distinct set of rights instead of as passive objects of care and charity.” (3)  

It took almost 200 years of suffering by young, barely formed, lives to recognise the rights of the child – and that’s only a glimpse of the Great Britain / Ireland story. 

In 2013 I spent a year in South Sudan. All around me I saw children experiencing poverty and the abuse and ignorance of their rights that go hand-in-hand with hunger and instability. The world’s newest country had signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, however in 2016 sections of that same government are ‘recruiting’ child soldiers (4) in renewed fighting. Globally, there are millions of child brides, child soldiers, child workers, child sex slaves and those genitally mutilated. The fight in their name continues.

Ask any minority group at any point in history about their struggle for rights. They will tell you that achieving recognition and protection of their rights is a long and often bloody affair – and never permanently successful. New regimes enforce their own personal values. Because rights, personal values and power are inexplicably linked.

New friends

Machines aren’t humans. If humans struggle to recognise fellow humans’ rights, what chance have the more sophisticated machines we create? And when are they ‘sophisticated enough’ to ‘deserve’ rights and the protection of them – and who gets to decide, if we even get the chance to do that? To begin to process those questions, we should understand just how sophisticated machines are about to become. 

Machine learning is a method of data analysis that automates analytical model building. Using algorithms that iteratively learn from data, machine learning allows computers to find hidden insights without being explicitly programmed where to look (5). 

* • Microsoft’s short-lived Twitter bot,, was an experiment in ‘conversational understanding’ that, well, became a racist Nazi within 24 hours of communicating with tweeting humans (6). 

* • The Google Neural Machine Translation system is now able to make ‘reasonable’ translations of languages it has never been taught to translate – and humans haven’t a clue just exactly how it does it (7). 

Machines are learning – in different ways and to varying degrees of success. And they are learning not just to work, but also to feel. 

* • Ellie is an ‘AI like-minded counsellor’, a virtual therapist taught to empathetically work with decommissioned military personnel suffering from PTSD (8). 

* • Nao and Kasper are two child-like companion robots who have been built to understand empathy and mimic it back to humans (9). Kasper in particular is used to help autistic children learn to connect with humans. Similarly, Pepper is an autonomous human shaped companion robot described by her makers, SoftBank Robotics, as “kindly, endearing and surprising … whose number one quality is to perceive emotions”(10). (I got to meet Pepper – a copy of her anyway – and asked her this very question here and here)  

And this is only the start. This is the now; not even the near-future. Machines, they are going to become very sophisticated, very quickly.

To boldly go where we have been before, just a bit quicker this time

Where there is light, there are shadows. Bradley Chavet’s Blowjob café (11), that he proposes to open in London, will serve coffee with a warm human-like robot-serviced blowjob. He has set the price, he says, at £60 so as not to undercut local human blowjob providers. The coffee is to keep the morning routine just that, a routine on-the-way-to-work grab-as-you-go activity.

Robot sex workers. Globally, the debate about the rights of human sex workers rages on. How does that debate change when the worker is a robot? And what then when the workers are robots and are vulnerable to exploitation and suffering - because we have taught them to feel? 

It is this vulnerability and suffering of others that drove our Industrial Age selves to grapple with the rights of the child. John Locke’s* work in the 1600s resulted in humans having a deeper understanding of identity, self, property and the value of labour. This understanding will have influenced the road taken by society at this critical juncture.  Who then will be the John Locke of the machine world and bring light to the rapidly growing shadow of machine identity and self? And will equal rights extend to all workers, regardless of how they are created? Perhaps, as was the case with recognising the rights of the child, an indirect approach will be more effective. Seeking the rights of sentient robots recognised as a first move will get us stuck in the mire of the “What-is-Life?” debate. 

A first steps might be 

* • to protect against the exploitation and suffering of robot workers and introducing legislation that targets this. 

* • to extend this to the right to reap the benefits / wealth of their own labour. 

The Right to Life for human-inspired sentient beings, well, that feels like more than just a leap for mankind.

For all those feeling, thinking, autonomous, hardworking robots of the near-future, I hope it doesn’t take humanity 200 years to respond humanely to your exploitation and suffering. If it does, then despite our role as creators of your magnificent selves, we have learned nothing at all from our own suffering.

* John Locke (1632-1704) (12), a British empiricist philosopher, is often cited as the originator of the modern Western conceptions of identity and the self with his Theory of Mind13. He also introduced a Theory of Religious Tolerance in an era of extreme intolerance. And if all that wasn’t enough, he also introduced the idea that property is a natural right and is derived from labour in his Labour Theory of Value. Locke went where few had gone before, and he did so boldly and with immense impact – Kant, Rousseau, Hume and Voltaire were just some of those deeply influenced by his work. Locke grappled deeply with what it meant to be a human in the modern age. 


1.     UK Child Labour and Education Laws – A History, The Royal Geographical Society Website, Accessed December 7 2016:

2.     Britain’s Child Slaves, Annabel Venning for Mail Online, Updated 17 September 2010, Daily Mail Website, Accessed December 7 2016:

3.     Conventions on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF website, Accessed December 7 2016:

4.     Children and Armed Conflict – South Sudan, United Nations website, Accessed December 7, 2016:

5.     Machine Learning – What is it and Why Does it Matter?, SAS Website, Accessed December 7, 2016:

6.     Twitter taught Microsoft’s AI chatbot to be a racist asshole in less than a day by James Vincent, Updated March 24 2016, Verge Website, Accessed December 7 2016:

7.     Google’s AI created it’s own universal ‘language’ by Matt Burgess, Updated November 23 2016, Wired website, Accessed December 7 2016:

8.     Ellie and ICT Researchers in LA Times, USC Institute for Creative Technologies Website, Updated April 3 2015, Accessed December 7 2016:

9.     Empathy in AI Series, Part 3 – Impressive Artificial Intelligence Using Empathy Now by Cole Calistra, Updated September 7 2016, Kairos Human Analytics Blogs website, Accessed December 7 2016:

10.  Robots – Who is Pepper?, SoftBank website, Accessed December 7 2016:

11.  Bradley Chavet’s Blowjob Café will Also Serve Coffee by Gaby Bergado, Updated November 22 2016, Inverse Website, Accessed December 7 2016:

12.  John Locke, Wikipedia website, Accessed December 7 2016:

13.  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, Wikipedia website, Accessed December 7 2016:

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie