Biomedical Research

AI and Moral Status


The question of moral status has been one that has plagued humans since Aristotle in 300 BCE [1]. In broad terms, it is the status attributed to an entity if and only if their “interests morally matter to some degree for the entity’s own sake”[2]. In other words, an entity of moral status will have certain considerations that need to be taken into account when deciding what is owed to them. Moral status has become increasingly important in areas such as bioethics, medical ethics, and even environmental ethics. For instance, is it morally correct to perform experiments on mice for the sake of scientific advancement? Are we right in consuming farmed animal products? Does a human embryo hold any moral status, and how does this play a role in abortion rights? These are all questions worth debating, especially considering that as humans, we only make up 0.01% of the Earth [3]. Yet until recently, these questions have only been limited to biological beings. However, as advancements in science and technology continue to increase, philosophers and scientists are expanding their scope to consider novel and unfamiliar beings, namely, artificial intelligence. 

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science that concerns creating smart machines with human capabilities. AI already exists in today’s world, from Netflix recommendations to Alexa and Siri. But when it comes to moral status, experts are focusing on a type of AI called Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). AGI introduces the capacity to perform any intellectual task with the efficiency of a human, including  thinking rationally, and acting humanly. While currently non-existent, there are a number of companies and researchers working on creating such an entity [4]. 

Since the beginning of AI as a whole, academic scholars were already explaining that the brain could be simplified to a systematically engineered structure of complex nonlinear systems [5]. Considering the fact that neuroscientists and engineers work closely together on technology, this doesn’t come as a surprise. For instance, the processes AI use have become more  human-like – with the way they integrate sensory information and learn from previous mistakes. Moreover, numerous neurological terminologies, such as neural networks and input/output channels, imply that AI is becoming more and more anthropomorphic [6].

Moral Status

Currently, our conception of moral status remains largely binary – an entity is either deemed worthy, or not. However, the absence of a universal criteria has made it difficult for experts to determine which entities, including AGI, deserve this significant label. Most scientists and philosophers name sentience and sapience as the two main factors to consider. Loosely defined, sentience is the capacity for qualia, meaning the  capacity to experience pain and suffering. Sapience, on the other hand, is a set of abilities attributed to higher intelligence, including reasoning, responsiveness, and self-awareness [7]. 

Nevertheless, the only model of sentience and sapience that we have is that of ourselves, making it challenging to fathom what these phenomena  might look like in other beings [8]. Therefore, while research is focusing on attempts to understand sentience, sapience, moral status, and how the three intertwine,  it is equally important for experts to consider the public when forming their decision. 

The Importance of Public Opinion

Unfortunately, there is very little research regarding the public’s opinion about an AGI, or any similar entity, with moral status. In fact, a recent research paper outlined the lack of information, finding only 294 relevant research or discussion pieces on the topic [1]. This is extremely concerning. A moral status in AGI may initiate changes into the social and legal systems, meaning that society would have to increase their interactions with AGI immensely. These interactions may appear or feel oddly intimate [7].  Not knowing where the public stands can lead to future problems.  

Figure 1: Sophia the robot [10]

Hanson Robotics’s Sophia serves as an example. In 2016, Hanson Robotics launched Sophia the robot, who eventually became the first robot in history to achieve citizenship in a country. Sophia is capable  of engaging in general conversation, human-like movement, and the expression of emotion. While this may seem like AGI behavior, numerous experts have confirmed that this isn’t true, because technology isn’t there yet. But her appearance and dialect continue to fool the public, many of whom describe Sophia’s citizenship with adjectives  like ‘weird’ and ‘creepy’. Others have brought up that Sophia received better rights than women in Saudi Arabia because she didn’t have to wear a headscarf, upon numerous other reasons [9]. Similarly, the situation with citizenship also brought up a discussion of whether to refer to Sophia as “she” or “it”, suggesting that the line between humans and robots is only getting blurrier [10].   

This example goes to show the importance of gauging public opinion. Especially in the future, experts must consider the public’s opinion before declaring AGI with moral status. Additionally, previous studies have shown that attitudes towards proposed technologies can be influenced by the way they are framed, in terms of context [11]. In order to lessen the chance of potential public outrage, professionals must also consider the way they introduce moral status in AGI into society. 


With the rapid advancements in neuroscience and technology, it seems almost inevitable that Artificial General Intelligence will come to be. As a result, moral status needs to be considered; it influences the way we interact with our environment and ourselves, ultimately contributing to our definition of morality. Thus, it is extremely important that experts factor in the public’s opinion when making their decision. After all, the introduction of AGI into society will majorly affect society. 

Saanvi, Youth Medical Journal 2022


[1] Harris, Jamie et al. (20/07/2021). The Moral Consideration of Artifcial Entities: A Literature Review. Retrieved: 06/20/22.

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (03/03/2021) The Grounds of Moral Status. Retrieved June 20, 2022, 

[3] Ritchie, Hannah (24/04/2019) Humans make up just 0.01% of Humans make up just 0.01% of Earth’s life – what’s the rest?, Retrieved: 06/20/22

[4] JavaPoint Types of Artificial Intelligence  Retrieved: 06/20/22

[5] Long, N. Lyle, Troy D. Kelley (02/2010) Review of Consciousness and the Possibility of Conscious Robots Retrieved: 06/20/22

[6] Tyagi, Neelam (27/02/2022) When Artificial Intelligence (AI) And Neuroscience Meet Retrieved: 06/22/22

{7] Hurley, M. (2021). Should AI Have Moral Status? The Importance of Gauging Public Opinion. The Neuroethics Blog Retrieved: 07/01/22

[8] Bostrom, Nick, Eliezer Yudkowsky (2011) The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence Retrieved: 07/01/22

[9] Skynet Today (2016) Sophia the Robot, More Marketing Machine Than AI Marvel Retrieved: 07/06/22

[10] Weller, Chris (26/10/2017) We couldn’t figure out whether to call the first robot citizen ‘she’ or ‘it’ — and it reveals a troubling truth about our future Retrieved: 07/06/22