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AI? Robot? AMA? Thinking About Definitions

Like any good science fiction nerd, I have long had an interest in robots and artificial intelligence. As the moral, legal and political implications have also always been of interest to me, two of my favourite episodes of Star Trek deal with these questions, The Next Generation’s ‘The Measure of a Man’ and Voyager’s ‘Author, Author’. However, it was listening to Professor Andrew Murray’s lecture “‘Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL’: Machine Intelligence and the Law” that really got me interested in the topic, one quote in particular stands out – ‘lawyers need to get involved in the debate before Silicon Valley tycoons announce they’ve invented a 42-foot killer robot that also microwaves cats.’ I plan to explore this subject in greater detail over time, but I think a good place to start, especially for a legal scholar, is with definitions.

Defining artificial intelligence is important yet challenging. Part of this is due to the constant ‘moving of the goal posts’ regarding what constitutes artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is generally regarded as futuristic; therefore, it cannot be currently in existence. Science fiction has not helped here, people expect 2001’s HAL 9000 or Star Trek’s Commander Data, they get IBM’s Watson or Apple’s Siri. Another aspect of the difficulty of pinning down a definition is due to a confusion and conflation of differing terms. Robot and artificial intelligence are often used interchangeably[1], when they are two separate concepts. Robots can have artificial intelligence but not all robots are artificially intelligent and not all AIs ‘reside’ in robots. There is also potentially a third term to considered, ‘Artificial Moral Agent’ or AMA, an AMA goes beyond a simply being an ‘autonomous intelligent’ system to one that makes moral decisions. AMA refers to systems that are more than just excellent computers, but systems that actually ‘think’, that should therefore be responsible for their decisions.[2]

There is value in separating ‘AIs’ and ‘AMAs’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines artificial intelligence as “the performance by computer systems of tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as translation between languages.”[3] This seems a useful working definition of an ‘AI’, which is effectively a tool, similar, if not more advanced to the systems millions of us are already familiar with using on a regular basis (although taking this definition literally does mean that Google Translate is an AI, which goes back to my earlier point about the moving goalposts of defining AI). An ‘AMA’, however, is more than just a programme executing commands, it takes actual decisions, it makes moral choices, even if it is not ‘conscious’ or ‘sentient’, it should also be ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ for the decisions it makes. It is worth considering, even with the criticism that it receives, that the ‘Turing test’ can conceivably be passed by an ‘AI’ that appears to a human to be ‘thinking’ even if the ‘AI’ itself does not actually think, therefore mere mimicry should not be sufficient to rule out an ‘AI’ being considered an ‘AMA’.

It is a complex question, and one we need to be debating and discussing as a society. There are fundamental moral and philosophical questions here, especially when considering specific applications like ‘killer robots’[4] or ‘sex robots’.[5] At what point does an artificial intelligence gain ‘rights’? After all we recognize that animals have rights and enjoy degrees of legal protection. These questions are no longer relegated to the realm of science fiction. As I said above, this is an area in which I am becoming increasingly interested so there will be more posts on this topic as I learn and explore.


[1]Such as in the recent piece in The Times Magazine: ‘How Artificial Intelligence Will Change Your Life Sooner Than You Realise: A Handy Guide for Humans (Not Suitable for Robots)’ The Times Magazine (London, 19 August 2017) 19

[2]See Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong (Oxford University Press 2009) for a more detailed discussion

[3]Concise Oxford English Dictionary (12th edn, 2011), 74

[4]Ben Farmer, ‘Prepare for rise of ‘killer robots’ says former defence chief’ The Telegraph (27 August 2017) Accessed at:

[5]Eva Wiseman, ‘Sex, love and robots: is this the end of intimacy? The Guardian (13 December 2015) Accessed at:

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