Tonii Leach

As the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) develops at an exponential rate, and technology becomes ever more integrated into our lives, it is imperative that the ethics of the convergence of these subjects is considered. Whilst the possibility of the development of a general superintelligence seems remote, consideration of the ethical implications of a technological singularity provides a platform for developing a workable approach to the issue if, or when, it arises.

Science fiction

Science fiction literature has long held a prominent position in the development of new technology, through the imagination of both new technologies and the potential implications of these. More importantly, however, it has created a discourse about these subjects that the general public subscribes to, offering them the opportunity to engage with and consider the implications of technological developments on their own lives.

The science fiction ‘Culture’ series of the late Iain M. Banks, published between 1987 and 2012, covers the period since the start of the last AI Winter through to the period of AI expansion in the 21st Century. That Banks considers technological, social and philosophical issues raised during this timeframe makes the series invaluable in it’s reflection of evolving issues and considerations in the AI domain. The series addresses, among other topics, the concept of human and non-human rights in an imagined future populated by advanced, sentient AIs and posthumans. I consider these topics in relation to Banks’ ‘Culture’ series in more depth in the paper ‘Iain M. Banks – Human, Posthuman and Beyond Human’ (Leach 2018).

Current models of human rights explicitly detail the inherent rights attributable to all humans, and the responsibilities associated with ensuring these rights. However, the notion of universal human rights becomes unstable with the advent of the posthuman, when it becomes harder to explicitly define ‘human’. Whilst many scholars have already hailed the arrival of the posthuman era with the integration of digital technologies into everyday life, there is contention about just how integrated technology needs to be before humanity becomes truly posthuman. Banks explores the rights of the posthuman from a less transitional perspective, when the digital supplementation of humans is so pervasive as to signify an ontologically distinct being.

Future of Human Rights

In Banks’ vision of the future, the basic citizens’ rights appear to align closely with contemporary liberal human rights, including the right to life, along with more political rights such as freedom and democracy. So far, so simple; the human rights of the posthuman era look remarkably similar to the most inclusive contemporary ideas of human rights. However, it is in the rights afforded to others that Banks imagines a structural change in the coexistence of humans and non-humans.

In the ‘Culture’ universe, superintelligent AIs coexist peacefully with the posthumans that originally built them. In a post-singularity future, the AIs have far outstripped the capabilities of the posthumans and have evolved into their own distinct species. In this situation, Banks presupposes that species primacy as a basis for attributing basic rights would be redundant. Not only is the posthuman coexisting within a society with a more advanced species, but the concept of the individual posthuman experiencing alterity as a choice positions them as occupying a liminal space; somewhere between human and not-human, with the choice to move in either direction at will. From this perspective, Banks suggests that it is the choices of the individual, regardless of whether they are posthuman or AI, that confers the condition of personhood and the associated rights within the Culture as a society.

So what does this offer the debate around ethics and human rights in the event of a technological singularity? Banks’ position suggests that the underpinning humanist ideals that form the foundation of contemporary human rights must be reconsidered in light of the possibility of a singularity. Currently, the very concept of human rights reiterate notions of difference, otherness, and inferiority in the consideration of the rights of other species’ as ‘animal rights’. The prospect of the advent of the superior AI ‘other’ must inform the widening of the in-group entitled to universal rights and elide constructs of distinction in attributing these.

Tonii Leach holds the ‘Frontrunner in Responsible Artificial Intelligence’ internship at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, De Montfort University (DMU, Leicester, UK) and contributes to the DMU team of Ethics Support  in the Human Brain Project. With a Masters in Modern Literature, she is currently undertaking her PhD with DMU on the topic of ethics and Human Rights in next-generation Artificial Intelligence.


Leach, A. ‘Iain M. Banks – Human, Posthuman and Beyond Human’, ELOPE: English Language Overseas Perspectives and Enquiries, 15.1, (2018), 69-81.

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