Machine Minds: Frontiers in Legal Personhood

43 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2015 Last revised: 29 Aug 2017

See all articles by Evan J. Zimmerman

Evan J. Zimmerman

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: February 12, 2015


Research is at the point where we might have to confront the possibility of what computer scientists call “strong AI” in the coming years. A strong AI could be intelligent by most reasonable definitions of the word, and possibly have a subjective experience. It stands to reason that we must seriously consider whether such a machine should have its will recognized, protected, and enabled. That is to say, such a sufficiently advanced machine might be said to carry responsibilities, and rights, on its own, as a legal person.

This question is wrapped up in significant philosophical and technical questions of acceptability and feasibility. The novelty of this Essay is that it provides a positive reason to grant such rights with a basis in technical law, along with a concrete definition and justification for personhood. The organizing principle this Essay arrives at is: Personhood exists to protect conscious individuals from suffering and allow them exercise their wills, subject to their intelligence.

This Essay examines several documents across a variety of fields, as well as historical records. Examples such as corporate law, personhood law, slavery law, and standing law demonstrate that the story of person-hood is a history of grappling with what is fully conscious, and how to allow these consciousness’s to exercise their will and avoid pain. However, because law was made by and for humans, by examining the law surrounding animal welfare and humans in a vegetative state, one finds that the law privileges humanity. Hence, our laws imply that a computer, if it is intelligent enough, should be considered conscious; however, our laws as they are would arbitrarily not provide it personhood simply because it is not made of flesh and blood.

Keywords: artificial intelligence, legal personhood, law, technology, society

Suggested Citation

Zimmerman, Evan, Machine Minds: Frontiers in Legal Personhood (February 12, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Evan Zimmerman (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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