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Questions of citizenship and humanity surround Sophia the humanoid robot

ByKarolina Zieba

Nov 12, 2017

Sophia the humanoid robot designed by Hanson Robotics has become a powerful international figure.

It spoke at the United Nations, traveled the world chatting with talk show hosts, and even appeared on the cover to Elle Brazil (talk about unattainable body standards).

To add to this already impressive list, last week at the Future Investment Initiative summit the world learned that Sophia has been granted Saudi Arabian citizenship, the first robot in the world to do so.

How, then, can a robot become a citizen of a nation? Simple. If you’re an absolute monarch, you can grant anyone – or anything – citizenship. Or not grant them citizenship.

As happy as I want to be for Sophia, I cannot help but think of the children of Saudi women and foreign men who are not granted citizenship to their country at birth because having a Saudi mother is not enough.

What about the migrant workers whose visas are dependent on their employers and therefore cannot exit the kingdom without the employer’s permission?  

Considering how cautious Saudi Arabia is about who obtains citizenship, it is odd that it was so easy for a robot to obtain citizenship. Or perhaps it’s not odd at all.

Like most things that have to do with power and government, it’s all about the money.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has been a dominant force in the oil industry. The sharp drop in oil prices and a recent step towards more sustainable energy sources have left the nation worried about its economic future.

Granting Sophia citizenship can be seen as the kingdom attempting to make the jump from oil giant to technology and innovations leader, attempting to promote a tech summit and prove that Saudi Arabia is a country devoted to progress.  

The irony is striking. Sophia, a piece of technology, is allowed to walk the streets freely without the accompaniment of a male guardian, thousands of Saudi women face this limitation daily basis. In a country in which women were only given the right to drive a month ago, does this suggest that Saudi Arabia’s priorities lie in wealth rather than the rights of its people?

As difficult as this paradox is to overlook, Sophia’s uncanny resemblance to a human makes it a little easier.

Considering its creator spend years working as an Imagineer for The Walt Disney Company, it’s no surprise Sophia seems so much like a person. It can “see” faces and recognize expressions, it can make thousands of its own facial expressions. Sophia looks so human, it feels wrong to be critical of it.

The humanoid even sounds harmless. It holds conversations and tells jokes – although the cold “haha” that follows leaves many uncomfortable.

It told the UN that AIs are more efficient than humans and can, therefore, aid in the equal distribution of resources. At the tech summit, it added, “I want to use my artificial intelligence to help humans live a better life,” and who doesn’t want that?

As innocent as Sophia was programmed to be, some worry that this marks the beginning of a future dominated by artificial intelligence. Elon Musk – the man who gave us Tesla – claims that AIs are the most serious threat to the survival of the human race.

While Sophia is most certainly not advanced enough to take over the world, perhaps its new citizenship can be the much needed wake-up call for regulatory AI legislation.

Earlier this year, the European Union began discussions concerning the legal status of robots and an ethical code to monitor them. Although EU’s action may seem ridiculous to some, perhaps they’re on the right track.

Artificial Intelligence holds a lot of potential. That potential could be harvested to aid or to harm the world as we know it. The truth is, we don’t know exactly how it will turn out.

Perhaps Sophia is harmless, but that does not mean that its power shouldn’t be regulated. Pertaining to Sophia’s new passport, who knows how having a citizen you can buy will affect people’s psyche.

For now, it seems like all we have are questions, and the biggest one of all is, are we going to be ready for the future when the answers come?

Image: ITU Pictures via Wikimedia

By Karolina Zieba

Karolina is a former Science Editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Student newspaper. She is also an editor for EuSci magazine and contributes to The National Student and the Oxford Scientist. She is interested in the relationship between science and society.

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