(NBC NEWS) — You probably wouldn’t have any qualms about switching off Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri — or Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana. Such entities emulate a human assistant but plainly aren’t human at all. We sense that beneath all the sophisticated software, there’s “nobody home.”

But artificial intelligence is progressing swiftly. In the not-too-distant future we may begin to feel that our machines have something akin to thoughts and feelings, even though they’re made of metal and plastic rather than flesh and blood. When that happens, how we treat our machines will matter; AI experts, philosophers, and scholars are already imagining a time when robots and intelligent machines may deserve — and be accorded — some sort of rights.

These wouldn’t necessarily be human rights, since these new beings won’t exactly be human. But “if you’ve got a computer or a robot that’s autonomous and self-aware, I think it would be very hard to say it’s not a person,” says Kristin Andrews, a philosopher at York University in Toronto, Canada.

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