Robot Marriage – Is it Legally Viable?

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Never one to dodge an argument, Janet Bettle (barrister in all aspects of family law) has attracted controversy for an uncompromising article published in Family Law Week.

In “With this diode, I thee wed”: Marrying robots and what this tells us about 21st century marriage, Janet collaborated with Jonathan Herring, Professor of Law at Exeter College, University of Oxford to examine the nature of marriage and how it may evolve.

Dan Cashman tweeted that the article made for ‘uncomfortable reading’; the Catholic organization the Iona Institute criticised the article. Salvomag said the question raised was ‘intriguing’ and predicted that ‘Once social robots do become mainstream, it will also only be a matter of time before someone wishes to challenge the laws that might prevent a person marrying their robot companion.’

What’s all the fuss about? Janet and Professor Herring use the idea of marriage to a robot, which may seem ridiculous for now, to examine some of the absurdities of modern marriage law. They conclude that robot marriage won’t be permitted – but not for the reasons you might imagine! In doing so, they go right to the heart of what marriage is – which is what has stirred up the controversy.

Money maketh law, and it has to be said that robots are big business. By 2025, Japan is expecting revenue for robotics to reach $70 billion. Whilst many of these bots are becoming increasingly sophisticated in terms of engineering, they are also becoming more refined emotionally, with the goal being that they will be able to relate to humans on an equal level. They will soon have the ability to read our emotions, respond to what we have to say and, potentially, meet our emotional needs in the way that a spouse would.

Why would someone want to marry a robot and how can it be ‘love’?

More and more, younger generations are spending time alone with computers, devoted to virtual worlds via computer games or television. In Japan, it is estimated that a million young men are “hikikomori” or withdrawn. The more time we spend with something, the more we can experience emotions towards it, even when that thing in non-living.

But can these feelings be considered ‘love’? The article points out that there is no need for reciprocity. Love – in a biological sense at least – is a neurochemical reaction or simply, a ‘feeling’. And where there is love, there is often the desire to marry.

What obstacles are there under current law?

There are a number of problem areas that could arise under current law. First and foremost, a robot is not a human and, arguably, has no gender. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 refers to ‘a man and a woman’, as these terms would be interpreted as a reference to humans, this would be a bar to robot marriage.

However, the definition of gender in the courts is conflicted. Under the Marriage (Same Sex) Act 2013 it refers to ‘a same sex couple’ but does not use the words ‘male’ and ‘female’, so if a man and his robot are in a relationship would this suffice for a same sex marriage?

Other issues include that both parties have to consent to the marriage, and if a robot is not considered to have capacity under the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the marriage would not be valid. Furthermore, lack of consummation and age (the minimum age for marriage is 16) would also be barriers.

Should we legislate to allow human/robot marriage?

The answer to this goes to the heart of the meaning of marriage. There are many policy considerations that need to be raised. Increasingly, there is perceived to be a right to marriage, including in Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. So if someone wished to marry, there would have to be significant justification to outlaw the relationship.

So is robot marriage legally viable? Learn more about the issues that this question raises and decide for yourself by reading the full publication at Family Law Week.

Our barristers are at the forefront of evolutions in family law, offering forward-thinking advice and representation in all proceedings. To arrange a consultation, contact our team in Chelmsford at 01245 605040.

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