Legal Personhood for Artificial Intelligences

59 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2008

See all articles by Lawrence B. Solum

Lawrence B. Solum

University of Virginia School of Law


Could an artificial intelligence become a legal person? As of today, this question is only theoretical. No existing computer program currently possesses the sort of capacities that would justify serious judicial inquiry into the question of legal personhood. The question is nonetheless of some interest. Cognitive science begins with the assumption that the nature of human intelligence is computational, and therefore, that the human mind can, in principle, be modelled as a program that runs on a computer. Artificial intelligence (AI) research attempts to develop such models. But even as cognitive science has displaced behavioralism as the dominant paradigm for investigating the human mind, fundamental questions about the very possibility of artificial intelligence continue to be debated. This Essay explores those questions through a series of thought experiments that transform the theoretical question whether artificial intelligence is possible into legal questions such as, "Could an artificial intelligence serve as a trustee?"

What is the relevance of these legal thought experiments for the debate over the possibility of artificial intelligence? A preliminary answer to this question has two parts. First, putting the AI debate in a concrete legal context acts as a pragmatic Occam's razor. By reexamining positions taken in cognitive science or the philosophy of artificial intelligence as legal arguments, we are forced to see them anew in a relentlessly pragmatic context. Philosophical claims that no program running on a digital computer could really be intelligent are put into a context that requires us to take a hard look at just what practical importance the missing reality could have for the way we speak and conduct our affairs. In other words, the legal context provides a way to ask for the "cash value" of the arguments. The hypothesis developed in this Essay is that only some of the claims made in the debate over the possibility of AI do make a pragmatic difference, and it is pragmatic differences that ought to be decisive.

Second, and more controversially, we can view the legal system as a repository of knowledge-a formal accumulation of practical judgments. The law embodies core insights about the way the world works and how we evaluate it. Moreover, in common-law systems judges strive to decide particular cases in a way that best fits the legal landscape-the prior cases, the statutory law, and the constitution. Hence, transforming the abstract debate over the possibility of AI into an imagined hard case forces us to check our intuitions and arguments against the assumptions that underlie social decisions made in many other contexts. By using a thought experiment that explicitly focuses on wide coherence, we increase the chance that the positions we eventually adopt will be in reflective equilibrium with our views about related matters. In addition, the law embodies practical knowledge in a form that is subject to public examination and discussion. Legal materials are published and subject to widespread public scrutiny and discussion. Some of the insights gleaned in the law may clarify our approach to the artificial intelligence debate.

Keywords: personhood, artificial intelligence, turing test, philosophy of mind

Suggested Citation

Solum, Lawrence B., Legal Personhood for Artificial Intelligences. North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 70, p. 1231, 1992, Illinois Public Law Research Paper No. 09-13, Available at SSRN:

Lawrence B. Solum (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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