Personal Finance

Is the world ready to give robots legal rights?

Robots are able to perform and simulate many activities that involve the human intellect. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

An increased application of artificial intelligence (AI.) in almost all sectors calls for radical legislative changes to support it.

While it is true that in Kenya there is a legislative framework to guide technology, it is impracticable for legislation to keep up with changes in technology.

Technology changes at a fast rate while the legislative process may not be as fast as technological changes. This is not a problem that is unique to Kenya but a reality globally.

In response to emerging technologies, the Kenyan Government set up a Blockchain And Artificial Intelligence Taskforce to look into the sector. The team submitted its report to the cabinet secretary in charge of ICT only last month.

Artificial intelligence is a concept that was coined as far back as 1950s when John McCarthy, a computer scientist, began to study the development of intelligent machines.


From the 1950s artificial intelligence has since developed and is one of the subjects garnering a lot of global attention. AI in Kenya is growing. Robotics is a subject that is now taught in some institutions and the existence of an AI association comprising professionals across various disciplines could be a pointer that AI is indeed growing.

Earlier this year, Nairobi was selected to host an international conference on artificial intelligence dubbed The World AI show, indicating that Kenya is a growing AI destination.

But there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to the applicable law on AI. I like to refer to these grey areas as “emerging practice.” These are subjects which are new and do not yet have a set legal framework guiding their application.

As at the time of writing this column, I have not yet read the report on the taskforce, however I would like to highlight some of the grey areas in application of AI specifically in the area of robotics.

Robots are able to perform and simulate many activities that involve the human intellect. The legal question therefore is, can a robot be deemed to be a person at law?

The Law of Persons generally recognises types of persons— that is the natural person (human beings) and the artificial person (mostly corporate entities). Do robots fall under the Law Of Persons?

Interestingly in 2017, a humanoid (robot) known as Sophia was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia. That’s right, Sophia the Robot is Saudi Arabian, though she is owned and created by David Hanson based in Hong Kong.

The question therefore is having been granted citizenship, what rights does she have? What sex is she/it, how old is she or it?

Last week there was a debate as to whether robots can be recognised as inventors in patent applications. The general law is that an inventor must be a natural person. AI is such that robots have begun inventing, but the prevailing law doesn’t allow them to be recognised as the inventors but rather the owners of the robots be recognised as the inventors.

Some professors have called for legislative changes to allow robots be recognised as inventors. AI is increasingly being used in the creative industry, for example there are paintings that are AI-generated and even songs. In the creative industry AI uses a lot of data- mining which can also infringe on intellectual property rights (IPRs).

Can a robot infringe on IPRs? The parting shot is this, with increased use of robots, is the world ready to legislate and give legal rights to the new sexless, ageless race known as robots?