It’s no doubt that citizenship is often a source of debate for news outlets. But recent headlines on the subject have turned heads for an entirely different reason than one may think.
As of October 25th, 2017, a female robot who goes by the name of Sophia has officially been granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia. She was officially the world’s first robot to be given such a legal honor. The announcement at the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh indeed sparked amazement among the crowd, but brought about controversy nonetheless. (1)
With full eyelashes and high angled cheekbones, the humanoid robot was modeled to resemble beloved actress Audrey Hepburn. Such a design was thought to portray relatable human characteristics. Invented by David Hanson (a former Disney Imagineer) of Hong Kong company “Hanson Robotics”, Sophia is equipped with all sorts of features. Using loaded vocabulary and artificial intelligence, the robot has the ability to recognize or mimic over 60 facial expressions. With a unique sense of humor, she often makes jokes or sarcastic comments, and even has the ability to express a range of emotions. (2) When awarded her citizenship, Sophia appeared to be thankful and claimed to be “very honored and proud for this unique distinction”. (1) She has since attended many events and commented on the future of robots; she hopes they will eventually become more ethical, empathetic, and generally helpful to humans. (3)
So what rights come along with this distinction? As a Saudi Arabian citizen, Sophia holds practically the same rights as every other citizen in the country. But deemed a female robot, she actually seems to have more rights than some of the other women in Saudi Arabia, something which the general public is not too happy about. Unlike other females in the region, the robot is not required to have a male guardian or wear a hijab. This entitlement has garnered protests on the idea that robots have higher rights than some humans themselves. (4)
The controversy doesn’t end there. Citizenship in Saudi Arabia is typically not easy to receive, much less to a foreigner. With this entitled status, she could technically gain legal status elsewhere, and then potentially have the ability to vote in other countries. This level of influence can be potentially alarming as robots could become a demographic majority. (5) By the same token, at a South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in which Sophia was introduced to the public, she made the mistake of a comment related to destroying humankind. (4) This, along with the power of robotic citizenship, has caused disputes on how artificial intelligence cannot account for simple ethics. Sophia has dismissed the idea of wrong intentions though, and insists her objectives are purely for the best.
Many have noted that the decision to declare Sophia a citizen was simply a publicity stunt of Saudi Arabia. Doing so would garner worldwide attention, and showcase their electronic industry. The idea that the country’s focus is not simply on oil would allow for an economic boost. It is clear that Sophia has become a great marketing tool. Since her reveal, the robot has gone on to promote items on Twitter and has even appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan India. (6) The excitement of this newfound artificial intelligence seems to have already had a lasting global effect.
Though she is already entitled to more than most females in Saudi Arabia, Sophia hopes to use her position to gather support for women’s rights. Slowly but surely, this trend in robotic citizenships is on the rise – a status the European Union is even considering. (4) As the technological era advances, one can only wonder if the benefits outweigh the danger of infringing human rights.
Though it will take some getting used to, Hanson created Sophia in hopes of creating a better future for mankind. In an interview with Khaleej Times, she has even discussed her fondness of human relationships and the idea of starting a family. (7) This certainly isn’t a trivial breakthrough; it’s not like one can just give their Roomba vacuum a name and call them a citizen. With idealistic plans such as raising awareness of robotics, Sophia has made an impression on the world. Do we fear the technological singularity or embrace it? Time will only tell.