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Legal personality of robots, corporations, idols and chimpanzees: a quest for legitimacy


Robots are now associated with various aspects of our lives. These sophisticated machines have been increasingly used in different manufacturing industries and services sectors for decades. During this time, they have been a factor in causing significant harm to humans, prompting questions of liability. Industrial robots are presently regarded as products for liability purposes. In contrast, some commentators have proposed that robots be granted legal personality, with an overarching aim of exonerating the respective creators and users of these artefacts from liability. This article is concerned mainly with industrial robots that exercise some degree of self-control as programmed, though the creation of fully autonomous robots is still a long way off. The proponents of the robot’s personality compare these machines generally with corporations, and sporadically with, inter alia, animals, and idols, in substantiating their arguments. This article discusses the attributes of legal personhood and the justifications for the separate personality of corporations and idols. It then demonstrates the reasons for refusal of an animal’s personality. It concludes that robots are ineligible to be persons, based on the requirements of personhood.

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  1. The terms ‘person’ or ‘persons’ in this article refers to ‘legal personality’ unless otherwise mentioned, because we omit ‘moral personality’ from consideration in this piece.

  2. For differences between legal and moral personality, see Blyth (1906).

  3. Cited in Stanley (2015). However, the citation in People ex rel Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc v Lavery 2014/Lavery 2014’) was: ‘Black’s Law Dictionary defines the term “person” as “[a] human being” or, as relevant here, “[a]n entity (such as a corporation) that is recognized by law as having the rights and duties [of] a human being” [emphasis added]: Garner (1999). The court also cited (Salmond 1947) for a similar view.

  4. For an analysis of the words ‘rights’ ‘duties’ and ‘liabilities, see Corbin (1920).

  5. Physical Relation: ‘A relation perceivable by the senses, between two physical objects. This would include relations of space, time, weight, color, density, and the like’: Corbin (1920).

  6. The case can be found in: Smith v ConAgra Foods, Inc (2013); Calaway v Practice Mgt Servs, Inc (2010); Wartelle v Women's & Children's Hosp, Inc (1997): Cited in People ex rel Nonhuman Rights Project Inc v Lavery (2014).

  7. The case has been discussed at some length further later in this article.

  8. Idols are also regarded as a ‘juristic person’ as will be shown later in this article.

  9. For example, see s114 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth); s123 of the Companies Act 2006 (UK).

  10. This article has been generously followed in discussing the corporate personality section in the present article.

  11. In Germany, corporations cannot be held liable under criminal law, however can be fined for regulatory offences, in contrast, they can be criminally liable even for manslaughter in major common law countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia.

  12. See, for example, s 124 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) in Australia. It beings with: ‘A company has the legal capacity and powers of an individual….’

  13. See more than 50 sections listed in s1317E on civil penalty and Schedule 3 containing 346 sections on criminal liability of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), Australia.

  14. Generally, a company can be of different types by reference to the liability of its shareholders in the event of its winding up. These are: company limited by shares, company limited by guarantee, company limited by both shares and guarantees, unlimited company, and no liability company: For details (see Harris et al. 2016).

  15. The owners are punished in effect when a corporation is penalised in that any pecuniary penalties reduce the value of their ownership holdings, and if a corporate capital punishment is awarded, then the owners are in most cases likely to suffer even more financial losses given the additional costs involved in the winding up or liquidation procedure, which will be paid as a priority payment.

  16. For numerous civil cases where corporations and/or individuals were held liable for corporate wrongdoings (see Hubbard 2014; Sexton et al. 2010).

  17. See, for example of administrative actions against corporations and individuals, Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC 2015).

  18. Recent leading cases in Australia under its corporate civil penalty regime: ASIC v Macdonald (No 11) (2009); ASIC v Macdonald (No 12) (2009); ASIC v Hellicar (2012); A v Healey (2011); ASIC v Healey (No 2) (2011).

  19. See for recent several manslaughter cases in the United Kingdom: Filedfisher (2015).

  20. The doctrine was applied in a more recent case of Transco PLC v Her Majesty’s Advocate (2004). For its initial consideration, see Lennard’s Carrying Co Ltd v Asiatic Petroleum Co Ltd (1915). A discussion of this common law theory falls beyond the scope of this article, however, for its analysis at some length see Solaiman and Begum (2014).

  21. Autonomous intelligence denotes the ‘capabilities for solving problems involving pattern recognition, automated scheduling, and planning based on prior experience’ (Koditschek 1989).

  22. Some knowledge about themselves—what they need, what they think etc.

  23. Awareness of the outside world, past experience etc.

  24. The ability to act towards achieving specific goals.

  25. For details of these attributes, see Schank (1987).

  26. Discussions of these arguments and objections at some length have been avoided in order to keep this piece in a manageable size. For details, see Solum (1992).

  27. Although the notion of BDI (Belief-Desire-Intention) plays an important role in Multi Agent Systems (Rao and Geogeff 1995), these terms have a very technical meaning in that context, which does not entirely correspond to that intended by Solum.


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I wish to express my sincere gratitude to two anonymous reviewers for their scholarly, constructive and very helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.

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Correspondence to S. M. Solaiman.

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Solaiman, S.M. Legal personality of robots, corporations, idols and chimpanzees: a quest for legitimacy. Artif Intell Law 25, 155–179 (2017).

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