Predicting the Legal Personhood of AI through the Fate of Two Chimpanzees in the Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery

in Technology/Volume II

By Eun Suk Yang

Often, a “best friend” inherits a fortune.[1] Thus, some may imagine a future in which people will wish to bequeath their fortune to a humanoid robot whom they consider their “best friend.” Thinking that “[w]ell you seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer,” one may think that interacting with an artificial being sounds absurd. [2]  However, forming such connections with an artificial being is not as implausible as it may seem, as one man in Japan married a video-game hologram in an $18,000 marriage ceremony.[3] Recently, the advancements in Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) are enabling these realities once thought to be fiction.[4]  Technological developments in AI have been applied to tasks once thought to be impossible, such as piloting drones.[5]  In 2018, Google displayed its AI that displays the realism and the natural fluctuations in human vocal conversation.[6]  These technological advancements are overcoming limitations in specific areas, if not in its entirety, of the Turing test.[7] As humanity comes closer to developing more complete humanoid AI,[8] as seen by sophisticated AIs such as Google Duplex, more humans may inevitably form emotional bonds and relationships with them.[9] These developments impose the question of whether AIs could ever be granted the legal status of people.

Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery

Whether the artificial robots could be, and should be, considered “human” or “alive” is certainly beyond the scope of this article,[10] but the courts will look to its legal precedents in resolving novel legal issues.  The New York court decision in Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery in 2017suggested that the idea that recognizing AI humanoids as legal persons may surprisingly be a possibility.[11]

In Lavery, the petition argued that habeas corpus rights afforded to “persons” should be granted to chimpanzees, named “Tommy” and “Kiko.”  The petitioner sought to expand “the common-law definition of ‘person’ in order to afford legal rights to an animal.”[12] However, the Supreme Court of the State of New York rejected this claim, finding that “although the dispositive inquiry is whether chimpanzees are entitled to the right to be free from bodily restraint such that they may be deemed ‘persons’ subject to the benefits of habeas corpus, legal personhood has consistently been defined in terms of both rights and duties.”[13]  Moreover, even in acknowledging that non-humans, such as corporations, may be considered as legal persons, New York’s appellate court emphasized that the “asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities [of chimpanzees] . . . do not translate to a . . . capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions.”[14] In other words, in recognizing the current legal framework, in which legal personhood are granted to certain non-human entities, the New York courts drew the line at whether an “entity” could perform the legal duties and responsibilities that follow from the rights.  Conversely, this line implies that if the non-humans could perform legal duties, and thus are able to be held legally accountable, Lavery suggests that the legal personhood may be conferred to that qualified non-human entity.  Thus, although Lavery failed to extend the legal limits of personhood with respect to habeas corpus rights to chimpanzees, the decision leaves open the possibility that the court could recognize legal personhood by a non-human entity as long as it is capable of performing legal duties and can be held accountable.  AI is already performing legal duties and has encroached on the jobs of paralegals and consultants in the legal industry.[15]  If current technology could allow AIs to operate vehicles and solve complex problems in real-time, it is possible that a humanoid AI could autonomously navigate the legal system and its proceedings in the future. 

Thus, although Lavery failed to extend the legal limits of personhood with respect to habeas corpus rights to chimpanzees, the decision leaves open the possibility that the court could recognize legal personhood by a non-human entity as long as it is capable of performing legal duties and can be held accountable.

Comparing AI to Pets

The issue on whether AI can be granted legal status may be contingent on the protections and privileges granted to pets. Many pet owners can attest to the intensely strong bond that humans can develop with pets and how this bond may translate to receiving an actual inheritance.[16] For instance, some pets have inherited large fortunes amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.[17] Notwithstanding these high profile cases, studies have identified numerous legal cases in the United States and around the world that involve pet owners leaving their pets with potential inheritances.[18] However, animals are not legal persons and the legal system currently allows inheritance to pass only to “closest relatives by blood, adoption, or marriage.”[19] Thus, the “traditional” family framework does not consider any entity, human or non-human, or persons outside of legally recognized relationships.[20]  As a result, some pet owners have started a pet trust as only a temporary measure.[21] But these trusts have faced issues, including enforceability and equitability.[22] Nevertheless, laws in some states have begun to recognize animals as something more than simple property, suggesting expansion of the traditional family framework.  Animal Legal Defense Fund notes that “[a]s of 2017, [pets] can also be the beneficiaries of legally enforceable trusts in all 50 states. Nearly two-thirds of states allow companion animals to be included in domestic violence protection orders.”[23]  In addition, certain state legislatures, such as Vermont, are beginning to take the well-being of the animals into consideration when determining their custody in divorce proceedings.[24] Thus, although pets have not received the status of legal persons, some states are acknowledging that people treat pets like a human family member by providing certain protections and privileges. Extrapolating increasing recognition of protections and privileges of animals with special relationship to humans, human relationships with AI in the future may also warrant similar protections and privileges.


Whether to grant legal personhood to advanced humanoid AI in the future may seem like an impossible challenge.  While the legal precedents and contemporary environment may seem unfavorable to that possibility, a nuanced reading of Lavery—one of the latest case—suggests that the courts are leaving the door open to the possibility that non-humans—inducing AI—capable of autonomous action and accepting responsibility could one day be granted legal personhood, regardless of their origins.

[1] See, e.g., Emily Jane Fox, What Happens When Someone Leaves Millions To A Pet?, VANITY FAIR (Sept. 9, 2015),

[2] HER (Warner Bros. Pictures 2013).

[3] See, e.g.,Simon Chandler, Japanese Man Marries Video-Game HOLOGRAM in Bizarre $18,000 Wedding Ceremony, SUN (Nov. 16, 2018),; Benjamin Haas, Chinese Man ‘Marries’ Robot He Built Himself, GUARDIAN (Apr. 4, 2017),; Jiji, Love in Another Dimension: Japanese Man ‘marries’ Hatsune Miku Hologram, JAPAN TIMES (Nov. 12, 2018),; Farah Mohammed, Japan’s Solution to Loneliness: Virtual Wives, JSTOR DAILY (Nov. 2, 2017),

[4] See Tim Collins, Sophia the Robot’s Creator, Dr. David Hanson, Claims Humans Will Marry Life-Like Droids by 2045, DAILY MAIL (May 23, 2018), (claiming that “androids will surpass nearly everything that humans can do” by 2035).

[5] Jake Swearingen, A.I. Is Flying Drones (Very, Very Slowly), N.Y. TIMES (Mar. 26, 2019),

[6] See David Gewirtz, Google Duplex Beat the Turing Test: Are We Doomed?, ZDNET (May 14, 2018),  In addition, Google recently announced that its Duplex it will be available in 43 states starting in the first week of March 2019.  See Dieter Bohn, Google Duplex Automated Restaurant Reservations Expand to 43 U.S. States—and the iPhone, VERGE (Mar. 6, 2019),

[7] The Turing test was originally posted by A.M. Turing in 1950 as a test to measure whether machines could think like a human. See A.M. Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, 59 MIND 433, 433–36 (1950); see also Gewirtz, supra note 6 (“If the interrogator could not tell which of the two respondents was the human and which was the computer, the computer was said to have passed the Turing test, where a computer could so fully imitate a human that a human couldn’t tell the difference.”).

[8] See Mark Morford Et. Al, Classical Mythology, (Oxford Univ. Press, 2007); GHOST IN THE SHELL (DreamWorks Pictures, 2017).

[9] Tim Collins, Sophia the Robot’s Creator, Dr David Hanson, Claims Humans Will Marry Life-like Droids by 2045, DAILY MAIL (May 23, 2018),

[10] For example, in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, there has been a litany of litigations and political battles to re-define personhood.  See, e.g., The Personhood Movement: Where it Came from and Where it Stands Today, PROPUBLICA, (last visited Mar. 18, 2019).

[11] Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, 152 A.D.3d 73, 78, 54 N.Y.S.3d 392, 396 (App. Div. 2017).

[12] People ex rel. Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, 2014 NY Slip Op 08531, ¶ 2, 124 A.D.3d 148, 150, 998 N.Y.S.2d 248, 249 (App. Div.).

[13] Id. (emphasis in original).

[14] Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, 2017 NY Slip Op 04574, ¶ 2, 152 A.D.3d 73, 78, 54 N.Y.S.3d 392, 396 (App. Div.).

[15] Sam Skolnik, Artificial Intelligence Creeps Into Big Law, Endangers Some Jobs, BLOOMBERG LAW (Jan. 22, 2019),

[16] Benedict Carey, Emotional Power Broker of the Modern Family, N.Y. TIMES (Mar. 14, 2011),

[17] See e.g., Madison Darbyshire, Karl Lagerfeld’s Cat: the Reality of Pet Inheritance, FINANCIAL TIMES (Feb. 21, 2019),

[18] Frances H. Foster, Should Pets Inherit?, 63 FLA. L. REV. 801, 803 n.13 (2011).

[19] Id. at 805.

[20] Id. at 806.

[21] See Fox, supra note 1.

[22] See Foster, supra note 16; Fox, supra note 1.

[23] Animals’ Legal Status, ANIMAL LEGAL DEF. FUND, (last visited Feb. 24, 2019).

[24] See Rebecca J. Huss, Separation, Custody, and Estate Planning Issues Relating to Companion Animals, 74 UNIV. COLO. L. REV. 181, 212 (2003).