Petersen, in his essay "The Ethics of Robot Servitude," discusses a question that is at the heart of much science and speculative fiction; is it right to create robots to do our work for us? What would the effects be? The answers or suggestions are quite interesting, as they deal with issues of property, ethics, ownership and our own sense of agency. Is there any point to human existence if our machines can do everything for us? Do we have the right to create beings that will simply serve us without being able to question? Robots might even be able to develop their own sense of agency, and demand rights and representation. If that ever were to occur, we would be at a very interesting place. In essence, we have to keep these questions in mind when deciding whether or not we want to exercise our ability to make our own slaves, with the caveat that they do not care that they are slaves (yet). The effects these questions of identity and personhood, as well as our responsibility to the things we create, are likely pressing concerns for us in our future, and have been explored in science fiction as well, including the works of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick in their works Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? respectively.
In the world of Neuromancer, 'absolute truth' itself is represented by the Turing Law Code; AIs are expressly permitted not to be constructed. With that in mind, two half-AIs are constructed, and all of the actions in the book are revealed to be steps towards uniting both Wintermute and Neuromancer to form one single super-artificial entity. This creation of new life, which is said to be glorious, with infinite purpose and power, and infinitely dangerous, unseats the absolute truth that only humans or living beings could have sentience or become sapient; Wintermute-Neuromancer, with its numerous possibilities, arguably has a better chance at life than the humans of the Sprawl. To that end, we should keep in mind the possibility that artificial life could become sapient; if so, what is our responsibility to them?
In Electric Sheep, the notion of absolute truth is deeply ingrained in the debate between humans and androids - whether or not there is truly a difference between them. The Voight-Kampff test demonstrates that Dick's interpretation of the meaning of life is the presence of empathy, and this is what makes someone 'human.' The characters struggle with this throughout the book - Deckard uses the V-K test on Rachael, but she is at first assumed, when it fails, to be a human who simply does not have empathy. The 'electric sheep' that Deckard gets to replace his real sheep that died is resented by him, because he does not think that it loves him back. This very same attitude is the thing that allows him to hunt down androids just as easily; he does not view them as beings that deserve to live, since the test says that they have no empathy. We soon learn that this may not strictly be true, however, due to his experiences with Rachael. Deckard's own wrestling with these issues is an important exploration of absolute truth in Electric Sheep; eventually, he comes to suspect that he and the androids are not so different after all. After he tries to retire an opera singer who turns out to be a replicant, he begins to doubt his own humanity and whether or not it is right to kill, even when the target is an android.
One question surrounding the sapience of robots, as explored in fiction, is the difference between robot intelligence and human intelligence. The Voight-Kampff test is the ultimate barometer for whether someone is a human or android; it tests empathy, which is thought to be the ultimate difference between being a person and not. The fact that this is a reasonable alternative to being an android cements the nihilistic worldview of the characters in the book; society has deteriorated to such a level where it is entirely reasonable for individuals to feel nothing for each other. At the same time, many characters cling to the idea of empathy as all that makes them human, and how they define and value their relationships with each other. The character of Phil Resch in Electric Sheep is completely human, but we soon learn that he has no empathy since he likes to kill for its own sake - this helps to blur the line between human and android. Just as importantly, it does show the rampant lack of empathy people have for other beings, an example of the nihilism that is present throughout the world. This shows the danger of how humanity might react to artificial beings becoming sentient; when even people can kill other people, what qualms might they have exterminating inconveniently sentient beings, whom they created, who now want to live and have their own lives?
Many of the issues that revolve around the notion of the ethics of robot servitude include those of personhood and responsibility. The effects of the wrong decision on these issues might be catastrophic; robots who are stronger than us, and smarter (and those whom we have placed our trust and information into), might take advantage of that and overthrow or enslave humanity. This might come about as revenge for perceived persecution they might experience from a fearful populace, or simply as an extension of malicious intent they might have on their own, just as humans can possess. All of this is predicated on the idea that, if robots were sentient, they may not want to serve us; as it is now, however, until they reach that point they are still tools which we create to be used. The real challenge is figuring out at what level of intelligence do we assign agency and individual self-awareness; furthermore, if a robot comes out on the other side of that line and becomes sapient, we must then discuss what kind of treatment they should receive. Is it unjust to mistreat the things we create? This brings up the same kinds of questions that were discussed during the slavery debacle; people thought of blacks and slaves as less than human, and therefore less deserving of equal treatment. If that trend continues in the event of robot servants becoming self-aware, there may be similarly disastrous and violent consequences to society.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Doubleday, 1968.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace, 1984.
Petersen, Stephen. "The Ethics of Robot Servitude."