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Purpose-built Artefacts or Special-purpose Human Beings?

Robotics, Philosophy and the Law

Fabio Fossa, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Italy

In my presentation I wish to focus on the interactions between philosophical and legal aspects in the debate on the regulation of robotics. By doing this I hope to contribute to exploring the tension that obtains between “essentialist” and “pragmatic” approaches to the issue, the possibility of mutual contaminations, and the extent of rightful criticism.

In the first half of my talk I will contrast Joanna Bryson’s approach to artificial agents as “purpose-built artefacts” with Jack Balkin’s characterization of artificial agents in terms of “special-purpose human beings”. Despite the similarities, which I will briefly specify, the two concepts are one the flip side of the other: they lead to different positions regarding the regulations of robotics and, in particular, the social and legal status that should be acknowledged to artificial agents.

In the second half of my talk I will try and shed some light on how disagreement arises in this debate. First, I will present an instance of disagreement within the boundaries of the pragmatic framework. Furthermore, I will suggest that, even though both the authors assume a pragmatic approach, essentialist conceptions are not entirely set aside and may partially account for disagreement.  Finally, I will try to determine if and to what extent the pragmatic approach may be criticized for reasons related to the influence it may exercise on the social understanding of robots-i.e., for essentialist reasons.