People have long imagined automatons for society's drudge work. The possibility and its implications are among science fiction's favorite topics. One question that crops up constantly: What is a sentient android's legal status? Is something that feels still property?
Star Trek: TNG's Data is one of pop culture's best-known androids. From season to season, his quest to become more human remained a core plot-line. While he regularly misses punch-lines and struggles with emotional nuances, his essential humanity obvious to the audience. He's a ranking Starfleet officer. The crew holds him in high esteem and his fellow officers consider him a friend. He has a cat, for crying out loud.
But despite all that, Data's legal status is a grey area big enough to warp the Enterprise through. He's so unique, no one thought to codify his rights as an android. And in "The Measure of a Man," his autonomy is challenged outright by cyberneticist Bruce Maddox. Hoping to replicate Data, he intends to dissect the commander's brain, and he isn't especially concerned with preserving his personality or memories. When Data refuses to submit to the procedure, opting to resign his commission instead, the local JAG court rules he's a mere piece of property and has zero say in the matter. It's left to Picard to challenge the decision and defend Data's rights.
Maddox's position is simple: Data's a machine, the highly-functioning equivalent of a toaster. "Would you permit the computer of the Enterprise to refuse a refit?" he asks. Picard's response is two-fold. First, he offers the court evidence of Data's emotions, including his portrait of Tasha Yar. Then, he busts out the social implications of the decision to be made:
It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?
Because Data's a prototype, rather than one of many, the legal status of sentient androids is resolved while they're still largely theoretical. It's a simple black-and-white issue: Starfleet won't be party to the creation of a slave race.
But the situation gets complicated when there's an entire population of functional robots built to shoulder the burden of human work. Take Andrew Martin, the protagonist of Asimov's "Bicentennial Man." (Let's just ignore the Robin Williams movie.) He's efficiently designed but clearly manufactured-a valuable, high-tech consumer product. But he's also imbued with fluke self-awareness. Simple luck of the draw makes Andrew unique.
Andrew's clearly sentient, but the world nevertheless considers him property. So Andrew embarks on a two-hundred-year quest to make himself a man, encountering legal constraints on his freedom at every turn. Initially, his rights are so limited it's not even clear he can keep the proceeds from his lucrative woodworking. His owner can't declare him free without appealing to the courts, where he faces opposition. Once he wins his freedom, he's still accountable to the 3 Laws of Robotics, which place the requirement to obey over the command to protect oneself. That leaves him vulnerable to all sorts of harm, so he campaigns for laws against "robot humiliation." He adopts clothes, and exchanges his original body for a more lifelike android form. He even invents prosthetic organs allowing him to power himself with food, advancing human medical technology in the process. Finally, Andrew-long a human de facto-loses patience and wants recognition as a human de jure.
Told it's impossible, that he can't be officially human, he demands to know:
In what way not? I have the shape of a human being and organs equivalent to those of a human being. My organs, in fact, are identical to some of those in a prosthetized human being. I have contributed as much artistically, literarily, and scientifically to human culture as much as any human being now alive. What more can one ask?
Humans are determined to maintain some barrier between themselves and the machines they still hold in suspicion. The argument against Andrew's freedom, rights, and legal status always boil down to simple denial, with no real justification.
Andrew only attains the label "human" when he undergoes one last procedure, this one allowing his brain to decay. It's only when he signs his own death warrant humanity embraces him as a brother. But there's another, unspoken reason he's able to secure legal recognition. He's one of a kind. US Robots and Mechanical Men deliberately modifies their designs to make successive generations of machine less like Andrew and less likely to cause trouble. "Our robots are made with precision now and are trained precisely to their jobs," one company official tells him. The company can't have an entire race of Andrews running around, because that would defeat the purpose of automatons: Cheap, reliant labor. The legal system isn't about to emancipate every robot in service.
US Robots designs and conditions its products not to desire freedom. Blade Runner's Tyrell Corporation doesn't go to any such trouble. This world's response to artificially created beings is simple: They don't have any rights. They're slaves, without rights or any hope of freedom, no matter how much they resemble humans. Replicants are menials, built to do dangerous, dirty work in the Off-world colonies, and they're banned completely from Earth.
The movie's futuristic Los Angeles is a dirty, gloomy pit. But it's a relatively appealing option for the replicants. Unlike Asimov's largely passive robots, they're not satisfied doing humans' dirty work. In the movie's climax, as Deckard dangles off a building, Roy Baty taunts him, "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave." It's more appealing for the Nexus 6s to live in the ruined cities of Earth than continue to living as slaves-and they're more than willing to kill to get away. The reason for replicants being made illegal on Earth? A combat squad of Nexus 6 Replicants violently mutinied. Made to mimic humans as thoroughly as possible, these Replicants see no justification for their inferior position, so they constantly attempt to rise against their masters. And every time, they're shot down by men like Deckard.
There are no trials in Blade Runner, no apparent legal recourse. Admitting Replicants have even the slightest humanity would destabilize the Off-world slave society they've built for themselves. It's just violently rebellious Replicants and the police agents dispatched to exterminate them.
The Full Citizen
As you might expect, the Culture takes a more enlightened approach to the problem of machine freedom. Yes, drones have to work off the cost of their manufacture, but no more. After their tenure of service, they're free and clear to do as they please, including apply for full Culture membership. In Consider Phlebas, when Horza commandeers the Clear Air Turbulence for his ill-fated trip to Schar's World, he unwillingly drags along the irrepressibly irritable Unaha-Closp. The little drone has a keen sense of his own rights, and he's not going to tolerate any disrespect from a scoundrel like Horza:
How dare you speak to me like that! I'll have you know I am an Accredited Free Construct, certified sentient under the Free Will Acts by the Greater Vavatch United Moral Standards Administration and with full citizenship of the Vavatch Heretocracy. I am near to paying off my Incurred Generation Debt, when I'll be free to do exactly what I like, and have already been accepted for a degree course in applied paratheology at the University of—"
Horza cuts him off, but he's made his point. Unaha-Closp has as much legal standing as any other character in the novel.
An open path to citizenship means there's little threat of rebellion from the drones. But Horza, in his paranoid hatred for the Culture, does have a point. This is a society that will always live with the possibility, no matter how remote, that one day, these machines-stronger and vastly more intelligent than mere mortals-will one day decide they don't need humans at all.