Intelligent Machines

Can You Arrest a Robot?

During a political rally in Moscow, police reportedly tried to cuff a very unusual suspect.

At a political rally in Moscow, police are reported to have attempted to handcuff and detain an activist called Promobot. But Promobot isn’t your average demonstrator—it’s a robot.

The event at which the futuristic fracas occurred was in support of Valery Kalachev, a candidate for Russia’s parliament. Kalachev was using the automaton to record the opinions and reactions of the crowd for future processing.

Apparently that didn’t sit well with Russian police officers, who “asked to remove the robot … and even tried to handcuff him,” according to the robot’s makers, who added that “the robot did not put up any resistance.”

There is, of course, a whiff of publicity stunt about the whole thing—buoyed by the fact that Promobot already has a track record for getting into scrapes. Earlier this year, it reportedly escaped from its laboratory in Perm, Russia, when an engineer apparently forgot to shut a gate. Its battery eventually ran out, leaving it stranded in the middle of a road.

Publicity stunt or not, it raises interesting questions about how we treat robots. Currently, laws surrounding automatons are practically nonexistent, though people have been suggesting for decades that they will eventually require their own set of rights. Most recently, a draft motion from the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs called on the European Commission to consider civil laws for robotics. “The most sophisticated autonomous robots,” it suggested, “could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations.”

Those kinds of rights and obligations, though, would also mean that humans would be expected to treat robots fairly too. Sadly, we’ve already seen that that’s not always the case. The hitchhiking robot HitchBot was vandalized to the point of destruction last year when it tried to travel across the the U.S., and Starship Technologies has also said that it worries about its wheeled delivery robots getting mistreated, though so far none of them have suffered the same fate as HitchBot.

Maybe, one day, we’ll all get along.

(Read more: Inverse, BBC, “This Plucky Robot Will Blaze a Trail Carrying Pizza”)

Hear more about robots at EmTech MIT 2017.

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