Remember when smacking a computer, television set, dishwasher, or refrigerator somehow made them work properly or stopped them from acting up? Doing the same to robots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) may not be as rewarding. The practice may even raise several ethical questions that are part of the robot rights debate.

Is it okay to hit a robot? After all, it is essentially just a piece of software inside a hardware shell shaped like a human or an animal—not too different from your desktop computer.

And the ultimate question in the robot rights debate: Should robots be given rights? Some people argue that they should be protected from the physical abuse depicted in the video below, and from labor and workplace abuse.

In an article entitled “Should Robots Have Rights or Rites?: A Confucian Cross-Cultural Exploration to Robot Ethics,” author Tae Wan Kim explored a different avenue to address this ethical issue. Instead of granting robot rights, Kim suggests making them rite bearers.

Right versus Rite: What’s the Difference?

Rights refer to the moral entitlement of an entity to do or obtain something. For instance, humans have the right to liberty and security, among other things. Advocates like Mark Fischel believe that robots could also attain the grounds for human rights, such as consciousness, free will, and rationality. Animals even have rights, including the right to avoid suffering. Corporations and other organizations are also given certain rights.

Kim agrees with this to a certain extent, saying that, “A major standard when discussing whether to grant moral status is sapience (advanced intelligence). If AI-powered robots can have such intelligence—one which grants humans moral status—it then follows that AI-powered robots deserve some kind of moral status.”

But giving them rights is not the only way to grant such moral status. Kim suggests that rites might be a more superior option.

Rites are rituals that promote morality in our relationships with other rite bearers. It’s a concept based on Confucianism, and Kim specifically defines a rite as:

Rite (li): A set of sequentially related acts, typically involving more than one agent, and together displaying symbolic significance, through which the actor/s recognize/s the value of the interactive event constituted by the actor/s and take/s a stance regarding each other.”

What If Robots Had Rights?

When applied to the context of robot ethics, giving robot rights could result in them saying things like, “I have the right to rest. Therefore, you can’t let me work for more than eight hours a day.”

If both humans and robots are rite bearers, however, the robot may say, “We need to finish this batch today, so I can continue working until we’re done.”

Kim espouses that the rights approach is adversarial—robots (or their advocates) may feel the need to protect their rights and become defensive. That could be all we need to make movies like The Matrix, The Terminator, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron come true.

But the rites perspective promotes teamwork and protects relationships and is, therefore, more superior, according to Kim.

Beyond robot ethics and in the social context, the rights perspective pushes a person to defensively say, “I have the right to free speech so I can say anything I want.” But the rite perspective would allow people to do a double-take and think, “What I’m about to say might hurt another person, so I will keep it to myself.”

Beyond the Three Laws of Robotics

“To develop robots as rite-bearers, they must be powered by a kind of AI that is capable of imitating humans’ capacity to recognize and execute team activities,” Kim said in the article. The statement takes us back to the three laws of robotics and the need to improve them.

Instead of focusing on adversarial laws, it may be more empowering to develop robots based on human-robot teamwork and relationships. Kim’s rite approach may work together with the empowerment concept developed by scientists from the University of Hertfordshire. The scientists are developing robots that can “see the world through the eyes of the human with which it interacts.”

What if robots had rights? In Kim’s perspective, this could be an adversarial approach that won’t help address the risk of robots fighting with humans. Making robots rite-bearers, on the other hand, can foster community and teamwork.