The Diffuse Intelligent Other: An Ontology of Nonlocalizable Robots as Moral and Legal Actors

Gladden, Matthew E. “The Diffuse Intelligent Other: An Ontology of Nonlocalizable Robots as Moral and Legal Actors.” In Social Robots: Boundaries, Potential, Challenges, edited by Marco Nørskov, pp. 177-98. Series on Emerging Technologies, Ethics and International Affairs. Farnham: Ashgate, 2016.

Abstract. Much thought has been given to the question of who bears moral and legal responsibility for actions performed by robots. Some argue that responsibility could be attributed to a robot if it possessed human-like autonomy and metavolitionality, and that while such capacities can potentially be possessed by a robot with a single spatially compact body, they cannot be possessed by a spatially disjunct, decentralized collective such as a robotic swarm or network. However, advances in ubiquitous robotics and distributed computing open the door to a new form of robotic entity that possesses a unitary intelligence, despite the fact that its cognitive processes are not confined within a single spatially compact, persistent, identifiable body. Such a “nonlocalizable” robot may possess a body whose myriad components interact with one another at a distance and which is continuously transforming as components join and leave the body. Here we develop an ontology for classifying such robots on the basis of their autonomy, volitionality, and localizability. Using this ontology, we explore the extent to which nonlocalizable robots—including those possessing cognitive abilities that match or exceed those of human beings—can be considered moral and legal actors that are responsible for their own actions.