In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court recognized that corporations are entitled to religious freedom under the First Amendment, much as actual people are. This further expands the “legal personhood” of corporations. They have the right to own property, enter into and enforce contracts, and make political expenditures under the First Amendment. However, corporations also have some of the obligations of real people: They can be sued and held liable under civil and criminal law.
These rights and responsibilities stem from federal and state laws, which recognize that corporations are “people” in certain situations. The idea of “legal personhood” existed in America originally to promote the work of the country’s first corporations: banks, insurance companies, water companies, and transportation companies. At the time, these corporations were viewed as providing essential public services. They needed to have some of the rights and responsibilities of real people to provide those services.
I wouldn’t disagree that we’ve gone too far in considering corporations people under the law. But the initial reasoning for corporate legal personhood—treat them as legal persons so they can be beneficial—is still sound. The reasoning is also sound for robots.
We are beginning to see autonomous technology and artificial intelligence that we will interact with as we would with other people. We’ll talk to our self-driving cars, rely on drones instead of the FedEx guy to deliver packages, and use original media and content (like recipes) produced by machines. To help ensure that our interactions with these robots are beneficial and occur as intended, we need state legislatures and Congress to pass laws that grant limited legal personhood to these types of technology.