Science and Human Rights

Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights

Movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Terminator brought rogue robots and computer systems to our cinema screens. But these days, such classic science fiction don’t seem so far removed from reality.

Autonomous and intelligent systems have the potential to affect almost every aspect of our social, economic, political and private lives, including mundane everyday aspects. Much of this seems innocent, but there is reason for concern. Computational technologies impact on every human right, from the right to life to the right to privacy, freedom of expression to social and economic rights. So how can we defend human rights in a technological landscape increasingly shaped by robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)?

First, there is a real fear that increased machine autonomy will undermine the status of humans. This fear is compounded by a lack of clarity over who will be held to account, whether in a legal or a moral sense, when intelligent machines do harm. But I’m not sure that the focus of our concern for human rights should really lie with rogue robots, as it seems to at present. Rather, we should worry about the human use of robots and artificial intelligence and their deployment in unjust and unequal political, military, economic and social contexts.

In 2013, the extent of surveillance practices was highlighted by the Edward Snowden revelations. These taught us much about the threat to the right to privacy and the sharing of data between intelligence services, government agencies and private corporations. The controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of personal data via the use of social media platforms such as Facebook continues to cause serious apprehension, this time over manipulation and interference into democratic elections that damage the right to freedom of expression.

There are ongoing efforts to update existing human rights principles for this era. These include the UN Framing and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, attempts to write a Magna Carta for the digital age and the Future of Life Institute’s Asilomar AI Principles, which identify guidelines for ethical research, adherence to values and a commitment to the longer-term beneficent development of AI.

These efforts are commendable but not sufficient. Governments and government agencies, political parties and private corporations, especially the leading tech companies, must commit to the ethical uses of AI. We also need effective and enforceable legislative control.

Whatever new measures we introduce, it is important to acknowledge that our lives are increasingly entangled with autonomous machines and intelligent systems. This entanglement enhances human well-being in areas such as medical research and treatment, in our transport system, in social care settings and in efforts to protect the environment.


Finally, the capacity for dual use of computational technologies blurs the line between beneficent and malicious practices. What’s more, computational technologies are deeply implicated in the unequal power relationships between individual citizens, the state and its agencies, and private corporations. If unhinged from effective national and international systems of checks and balances, they pose a real and worrying threat to our human rights.


Efforts made by Abhinav Suresh Ennazhiyil