In late May, as you might have heard, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests made headlines by banning captive dolphin shows with a statement that dolphins “should be seen as non-human persons”. Although to some people the news was blown out of proportion, it was and is a big deal for dolphins and their human advocates.
However, looking at it merely as a victory for animal welfare misses the deeper significance of the event. Ultimately, this is about personhood: an entity’s status, legally and socially, as an independent and responsible person. Personhood is not something most of us think about much, if at all, but it forms a massive part of the way we subconsciously view the world. If you consider an entity to be a person rather than a thing, you will act very differently toward it. When I started thinking carefully about India’s dolphin decision, I realized that it is a small part of a titanic shift in our definition of personhood, a shift that could lead to some incredibly strange futures.
In Europe, a few hundred years ago, the full benefits of personhood were restricted to adult, white, Christian, property-owning, male humans. Two hundred years ago, slaves were treated as “things” that could be bought and sold with legal and moral impunity in many civilized countries. Whether women were legal “persons” was questionable even to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894. But during the last couple centuries, humanity has rapidly started to expand its societal and legal notions of personhood. Now, all human beings have personhood, as well as corporations in many nations, and animals are starting to gain that status. India’s dolphin declaration was only a matter of time. New Zealand and the Balearic Islands of Spain have both granted legal rights to great apes, while Germany and Switzerland have each amended their constitutions to recognize animal rights.
With animal personhood, the end result is simply better treatment of other living creatures, and recognition of their own intrinsic abilities and worth. It doesn’t mean turning them into humans; animals have their own cultures and societies and, as far as we can tell, don’t particularly care about the human versions.
The closer one gets to a human being, however, the more the lines blur.
Imagine that, many years from now, geneticists are able to successfully clone a Neanderthal from reassembled DNA. There are quite a few technical hurdles to this, but if it happens, and the Neanderthal baby is born and grows successfully to adulthood in the midst of human beings, he or she will certainly be considered a person, not merely an unusual animal. How far would their personhood go before becoming humanity? We don’t really know what a reconstituted Neanderthal would be like, so we are only able to speculate the extent to which one would participate in human society.
Far, far weirder is the idea—currently exclusive to science fiction—that hybrids of humans and animals might someday be created. The genomes of dolphins and humans, or humans and cats, or some other combination, could conceivably be combined to produce new sapient species. (I’m speaking in VERY broad terms here. The technical hurdles are immense, but probably solvable, if our understanding of genetics continues to progress at its present rate. We are already starting to synthesize microbes to do crazy things, so it is anyone’s guess what will be feasible a century or two from now.) If real bat-men and cat-women start prowling over the Earth, natural humans will abruptly discover that they are no longer the rulers of the planet, or the arbiters of rules about humanity and personhood.
This could happen much sooner, if high-level artificial intelligence appears. How will we determine personhood for a set of computer processes? We like to think of a person (human or animal) as being a physical thing to some extent—this is one reason treating corporations as persons gets on people’s nerves. When data and code become a person, things get tricky. Can an A.I. be changed or updated freely? Can it be arbitrarily turned off by a human being? Can it be adopted, own property, claim copyright for things it creates, serve on a jury, vote, marry a human, etc.? Given that we will be the progenitors of artificial intelligence, there is a very real possibility that any strong A.I. we produce will by design act enough like a human to confuse us. (That is the whole idea behind the Turing test, after all.) A.I.s will be independent entities, but will be programmed (initially, at least) to synchronize with human culture, and therefore they may claim certain rights that we currently consider the exclusive domain of human beings. Accustomed to recognizing even animals as persons, will we be able to deny them? Would they, in return, be given influence in human affairs?
Eventually, restored Neanderthals, A.I.s, cyborgs, or human-animal hybrids would diverge from natural Homo sapiens sapiens culturally and intellectually. They would be new, unpredictable peoples, with their own ideas about rights and morals, and their own ways of relating to and governing the world. Humans would, for the first time in history, have to share our world with other persons, who may not make decisions we like.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, just as personhood for animals can be a very good thing. I am strongly in favor of a deeper respect for and connection with the other inhabitants of the Earth. Far in the future, personhood may well be regarded as an interim curiosity in human evolution. Traditional tribes and many ancient civilizations had no such concept; to them, the world was filled with inanimate objects, animals, plants, humans, nature spirits, and deities, all coexisting and possessing some measure of equality. Our heirs, inhabiting a world where many living things will have become “persons”, may hold a similar view.
Today, however, personhood is a dangerous idea, even if it hints at strange, possibly rosy futures. Personhood has been remaking human society and morality over the past few centuries. It will continue to do so in still larger ways, and we might lose control of it, or create a situation we will one day regret. Personhood will eventually destroy our notions of human exceptionalism, which could be good or bad. I think it is important to be careful and conscious about the implications of how we apply it now.
Do you agree? What are your thoughts on personhood? And how would we determine if an artificial intelligence is a person or not?