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Do Robots Deserve the Right to Unionize?
B. J. Murphy   Jun 3, 2013   Ethical Technology  

In 1979, sociologist Prof. Albert J. Szymanski once said:
The energy for change comes from the emotions. It comes from feelings of frustration that arise when people's needs are not met. If people were computers that could be programmed to do anything their masters wanted, there would be no pressure for change, even if some computers were treated much worse than others…

But people have physical and emotional needs that cannot be met in a class society which gives power and wealth to some at the expense of others." (Szymanski, Sociology, p. 321)

And while I certainly agree in the context of his time period, as both a socialist and Transhumanist, living during the technological era of the 21st century, I'm forced to look back on this quote and ask myself: But what if computers had emotions? What if they became sentient? Would they not then have the same emotional drives to enjoy the fruits of their labor as their fellow Human workers? Would they not have the right to unionize and fight for better working conditions?

Before getting into the question of whether or not a robot has the right to collectively bargain, I feel that it’s necessary to first address consciousness, our search for sentient beings, and our means of defining sentience. These are, after all, the ultimate questions and, consequently, ultimate drivers of how we’ll answer if whether or not robots deserve the right to unionize alongside their fellow workers.

It comes down to, I believe, the old philosophical concept: "Cogito ergo sum." The phrase’s definition has certainly changed since Descartes' era and publishing of his magnum opus Discourse on the Method. 'I think, therefore I am' no longer applies to Man in the gender-sense. In fact, it no longer solely applies to mankind in general. What followed mankind came a good portion of the rest of the animal kingdom.

And now, during our current era of exponentially advancing technology, A.I., and digital autonomy, we're forcing ourselves to rethink again the old 17th century philosophical concept in order to brace ourselves for the next coming self-aware being – robotics.

But then, where Descartes differentiated conscious thought from automata thought, how then will we approach the question of automata thought when said automata acquires sentience – self-conscious awareness? Obviously the robot would begin by trying to prove its sentience to the court via the Turing Test. How we approach a robot seeking approval and validation of what it already knows is an entirely different question. What demands would we necessitate? How constrained should said robot be to be viewed positively under the court’s biased observation?

Anthropocentrism or Anthropomorphism?

I ask this because, even to this day, we remain fixated on searching for sentience under the “microscope” known as ourselves – our own species. We convince ourselves that there lives a dichotomy between our observations, and the true answer of our curiosity will lie under one or the other. This false dichotomy is Anthropocentrism and Anthropomorphism.

There's a very thin line between Anthropocentrism and Anthropomorphism, I've come to believe. Where the former regards Humans as being the most important sentient being on the planet, the latter still looks to Humans as being the model of which everything else should extol to and be like. In the end, whatever route you take in your view of all that is nonhuman, Homo sapiens remain the dominant model to "everything a species should be." 

Whenever we search for sentient beings, I believe it's best that we leave out anything "Human" in our search and instead fixate on consciousness itself. "Cogito ergo sum" should be the dominant means of searching for sentience. As mentioned above, since the coining of that phrase by Descartes, its very definition has changed several times – from including white women, to anyone who wasn't white, to even several different nonhuman animal species. Meaning, humans weren't really the "first conscious beings", thus not necessarily a model of what "should be". 

I fear that, when automata becomes the next sentient being we discover, our fixations on either Anthropocentrism or Anthropomorphism will consequently lead us to never truly accept their sentience until they're in every way like us – aging, suffering, biologically limited slabs of meat. Essentially, we'd become the next oppressors.

In fact, it reminds me of the famous science-fiction film Bicentennial Man. In this film an android known as Andrew is first taken up as a serving droid for a rich family. As time goes by, this family begins recognizing Andrew’s self-independence. Resulting in their teaching him all that they can, giving him a bank account, and eventually his freedom.

Several years later, Andrew falls in love with a future relative of the family he once served. During this process, Andrew comes across a bio-robotics engineer named Rupert Burns. Together, through Rupert’s engineering skills and Andrew’s substantial income from the carpentry designs he did several years back, they’re able to mimic almost everything that is to be Human and attaches it to Andrew. But the one thing that drives Andrew most of all is the woman he fell in love with. And in order to officiate their wish for marital status, Andrew must go before the court and have them recognize his sentience.

Unfortunately his attempts fail, with the judge leaving behind a very staggering comment: “Society can tolerate an immortal robot, but we will never tolerate an immortal human. It arouses too much jealousy, too much anger. I’m sorry Andrew, but this court cannot, and will not, validate your humanity.”

As a result, Andrew goes against his love for life and, with the help of his friend Rupert, takes the step of achieving mortality. Several years later, Andrew makes one last attempt, having aged considerably and on the brink of death.

President Marjorie Bota: Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin: I've always tried to make sense of things. There must be some reason I am as I am. As you can see, Madame Chairman, I am no longer immortal.
President: You have arranged to die?
Andrew: In a sense I have. I am growing old, my body is deteriorating, and like all of you, will eventually cease to function. As a robot, I could have lived forever. But I tell you all today, I would rather die a man, than live for all eternity a machine.
President: Why do you want this?
Andrew: To be acknowledged for who and what I am, no more, no less. Not for acclaim, not for approval, but the simple truth of that recognition. This has been the elemental drive of my existence, and it must be achieved, if I am to live or die with dignity.

The court informs Andrew that they’ll need some time to consider everything said before reaching a conclusion. Knowing this, Andrew waits despite his life slipping away closer than ever. While on his death bed, next to the love of his life, the court reaches a decision: Andrew is officially recognized as Human. But before Andrew is to hear those words, he dies.

This is a very sad ending, in my opinion. To see Andrew thrive due to the people around him recognizing his sentience and love of life, only to then be shot down by a biased court until he becomes every bit of Human, including our species’ mortality. It's also worrisome over whether or not a similar scenario will occur in our near future when a robot seeks to prove to the court his/her sentience by passing the Turing Test. Even by passing the test, will the court be open minded enough to accept the results? Or will the robot be forced to take on a correlating path as that of Andrew Martin's? As Andrew would say quite often throughout the film, “This will not do.”

Robots collectively bargaining

As shown in the film mentioned above, where the common layperson recognized Andrew’s sentience, and thus deserving every right they, themselves, attain, the court refused to accept that society was ready for robots to attain recognition of their sentience, let alone basic rights, due to Andrew being immortal. While this certainly brings up other important questions, like how courts or governments will react to our species achieving “immortality” – or better termed, indefinite life extension – for now we’ll stick with the question of robots and their attaining basic living and working rights.

According to Article 23 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is said:

  • Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

  • Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

  • Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

  • Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

And according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, “The freedoms to associate and to bargain collectively are fundamental rights” And that:

“Collective bargaining, as a way for workers and employers to reach agreement on issues affecting the world of work, is inextricably linked to freedom of association. The right of workers and employers to establish their independent organizations is the basic prerequisite for collective bargaining and social dialogue. The right to strike has been recognized internationally as a fundamental right of workers and their organizations and as an intrinsic corollary to the right to organize.”

As one can already notice, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights still adheres to the biased outlook of sentience being everything Human. This will become a struggle in itself, and likely will spark another Civil Rights movement in similar magnitudes as seen during the Civil Rights marches for African American rights, for Women’s rights, and as we’re currently witnessing for Immigration rights.

Robotic rights will be one of the greatest questions asked in the 21st century. Protests will emerge, riots will erupt, conflicts between robot-rights advocates and neo-Luddites will be aroused. Making this question all the more complex and controversial, and yet no robot has yet acquired sentience and going before the courts to validate it.

But let’s just assume that these robots have since passed the Turing Test, and thus their sentience validated. Does this then mean they attain the right to acquire every other right given to their fellow Human workers? If not, why not? Surely the argument of their efficiency being enough reason not to attain union rights hardly merits validity, given the fact that every Human worker attains greater or lesser efficiency than others in their line of work. 

You can't argue that they're "not alive" or "aren't consciously aware" of their being alive, given the already established fact of them being sentient beings – meaning, they're both alive and consciously aware of their being alive. So how about their level of susceptibility of being exploited by the company they work for? Surely machines, as are humans, are used to build and design their products as fast as possible with as less pay as possible to achieve the highest amount of profits possible. With the robots being sentient – thus alive, with emotions and needs – are they not just as susceptible as humans in being exploited for their labor, regardless of the gap between a human and a robot's efficiency in said labor? 

Emotionally-driven remarks of robots “stealing our jobs” will also emerge, even as their sentience is validated. But then, even if technological unemployment emerges, would this not then provide more of an open room for people to do what they’ve dreamed of doing, to start a career that better fits their ideal dream? (See: Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK by Federico Pistono) An even better question would be, wouldn’t the robots also deserve to do as they pleased, rather than be forced into pre-determined labors?

What we’re talking about here is a full-scale emersion of a human-robot work (and living) force. But then, again, how will we react when the machines we’re deeming as “robbers of our jobs” begin demanding their right to unionize and attain every bit of right we, as humans, equally attain?

According to philosopher Richard A. Cohen:

"The humanity of the human does not arise from an animal or machine evidencing logic or the rationality of means and ends... Rather, the humanity of the human arises when an animal or any being, is moved not by efficiency but by morality and justice. A being becomes moral and just when in its very sensibility, and across the pacific medium of language, it finds itself desiring an undesirable and insatiable service for the other, putting the other's need before its own." (Cohen, Ethics and cybernetics, pp. 164-165)

While certainly a very useful factor to look at when studying robots, especially one which seeks to pass the Turing Test, I also find this to be an interesting question for those studying the robots as well. Whenever we'd see injustice occurring at the expense of a robot – i.e. having to protest because the company they work for isn’t living up to their promise to allow them to unionize – and then do nothing about it, are we not then betraying Richard Cohen's definition of what makes someone "Human" - to be " morality and justice"?

This is one of the many reasons why I refuse to look at the search for sentience in robotics under either an Anthropocentric or Anthropomorphic point of view. Both rely too heavily in the sole understanding of humans, rather than consciousness itself.

Instead of looking to Cohen for a sufficient means of how we should address robots – especially sentient ones – I find that Cynthia L. Breazeal’s understanding of humans and robots’ relationship with one another merits greater justice for both:

“A sociable robot is able to communicate and interact with us, understand and even relate to us, in a personal way. It should be able to understand itself and us in social terms. We, in turn, should be able to understand it in the same social terms - to be able to relate to it and to empathize with it.” (Breazeal, Designing Sociable Robots, p. 1)

So should robots be able to unionize? Unfortunately, this question will not be solely answered by the court via a Turing Test. A court’s decision of a robot’s sentience will come as a result of pressure by the masses who are fighting for robotic rights, which also includes the pressure given by robots themselves as they protest and commit civil-disobedience. The question of a robot’s sentience will be answered by the majority of the populace before the courts ever find the heart to recognize it as well.

Though I'm sure this will be a controversial thing to say sooner or later, I do believe robots deserve the right to unionize alongside Human workers. After all, as the old saying goes:

Workers of the world, unite! 


Breazeal, Cynthia L. Designing Sociable Robots. A Bradford Book, 2004.

Cohen, Richard A. Ethics and Cybernetics: Levinasian Reflections. Ethics and Information Technology, 2000.

International Labour Organization.

Szymanski, Albert J. Sociology: Class, Consciousness, and Contradictions. Van Nostrand, 1979.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

B.J. Murphy is a Technoprogressive Transhumanist activist within the East Coast region of the U.S. He's worked with the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources as a member of their Planetary Community Vanguard, helping campaign funding for the ARKYD 100 Space Telescope, an open-source means of space exploration. He is a Writer, Editor, and Social Media Manager for and runs his own blog called The Proactionary Transhumanist. He's a co-author of both Longevitize!: Essays on the Science, Philosophy & Politics of Longevity and The Future of Business: Critical Insights On a Rapidly Changing World From 60 Futurists.


I don’t doubt that robots (or “synthetic intelligences,” as is likely to eventually be seen as more politically correct) will eventually petition for recognition of full rights before the law, but it seems really dubious that it will be in the context of the right to form a labor union. Factory owners, and the manufacturers of the robots, are very unlikely to see the attraction in a robot that is able to ponder its own existence, as this is quite low on the list of tasks required for the job at hand. Even when the time does come when sapience does emerge to the point of political advocacy, there are many more fundamental rights of personhood, such as property ownership, that are likely to be settled long before something like the right to form unions is ever even able to be addressed.

@SHaGGGz, you said:

“Factory owners, and the manufacturers of the robots, are very unlikely to see the attraction in a robot that is able to ponder its own existence”

But then, wouldn’t this just as equally spark conflicts between the robot laborers and factory owners? It’s equivalent to what we’re seeing today, where factory owners aren’t letting undocumented workers work for them, despite whatever efficiency they may attain in the field. That in itself is sparking the Immigration Rights movement, among other reasons.

These robots could just as equally attain the emotional drive to feel offended that they’d be denied work because of who they are just as any other sentient being would.

Rights like personhood, property ownership, etc. are indeed important, and will likely throw a lot of fuel on the fire we know as the robot-human conflict, but that then doesn’t mean that labor unions would be nonexistent, let alone obsolete in the minds of robotic laborers who are self-conscious.

Not sure I quite follow your train of thought here. Factory owners today deny undocumented workers work largely because of the legal risks involved.

Put more simply, talking about unionization rights before more basic, fundamental rights of personhood are addressed is putting the cart before the horse. Such rights will eventually be fought for and won, but after the more basic ones are, and may not even have to be fought for separately, as basic rights of personhood may imply unionization rights, because these already apply to flesh-and-blood persons.

Legal risks are one of reasons adhered to, which is yet another reason for the growing Immigration rights movement, but as I’ve worked alongside undocumented comrades, there are plenty of industries who are denying work solely because of racism and xenophobia. Those who do hire them then subject them to terrible working conditions.

One of the main struggles in my own area right now is against Reynolds American and their slave-labor conditions in the tobacco fields. I’m working alongside groups like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), who’s aligned with the AFL-CIO, in issuing the right for undocumented workers to collectively bargain without fear of being fired, or worse deported.

I see these struggles and I can’t help but notice that similar situations will occur when sentient robots try and fight for the same things as my undocumented comrades are. There’s plenty of suffering occurring here, and needs not to occur again in our future. That is why I address this particular issue before others.

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