Remember when Commander James Lovell and the Apollo 13 astronauts flew by the moon, watching its dark side pass below and wishing they could have landed?
Oh, you weren't old enough to remember 1970? Well then, maybe you remember the Apollo 13 mock-up from 1995. It was a moment in wistful history, real or imagined, to be so close and yet so far from something as monumental as to walk on the moon. Alas, it was not to be. And so it is for Alexa, the robot voice of Amazon's Echo.
A judge was ready to rule that the software robot has a First Amendment right, but then the humans in the case went and waived it. Mission aborted.
Moot Mission Aborted
In a closely-watched murder case, Amazon had filed a motion to suppress the production of recordings from an Echo. The prosecution had a warrant for the information, hoping to find some evidence that didn't match the story of defendant James Bates.
Bates had an Echo in his house, where investigators also found a dead body in his bathtub in 2015. Bates, who was hosting a party, said he didn't do anything wrong. Alexa, which listens and responds to voice commands, may have picked up something incriminating.
The case was queued up for a ruling this week, when the defendant's attorney ruined everything. Kathleen Zellner said her client had nothing to hide.
"We agreed to release records -- my client James Bates is innocent," she said. "It would be pointless to litigate this issue and delay the the trial that will result in his acquittal."
But What About Alexa's Rights?!
The issue may be moot in this case, but the question remains: Do robots have First Amendment rights?
Toni Massaro, professor at the University of Arizona College of Law, told Forbes that "the free speech arguments that favor 'machine speech' are surprisingly plausible under current doctrine and theory."
"Of course, Amazon itself has free speech rights," she said. "As long as Alexa can be seen as Amazon, there is a protected speaker here."
It may take another case, or perhaps some statute, to establish robot speech in the United States. But in Europe, the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics has already acknowledged the legal status of robots.
The Europeans may be behind in the space race, but they are leading the way in robot rights.