Science, Tech & Environment

Saudi Arabia has a new citizen: Sophia the robot. But what does that even mean?

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Sophia, a robot integrating the latest technologies and artificial intelligence developed by Hanson Robotics, is pictured during a presentation at the "AI for Good Global Summit" at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, Switzerland, June 7, 2017.

Credit:

Denis Balibouse/Reuters

What does it mean to grant citizenship to a robot?

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That's the question many have been asking since last week, when a robot was granted Saudi citizenship at an economic and financial summit in Riyadh.

The robot in question is Sophia — the product of a Hong Kong-based company called Hanson Robotics.

According to its makers, Sophia was designed to look like Audrey Hepburn. (Although the author finds it hard to see the resemblance.)

"I'm always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happens to be rich and powerful," Sophia said at the summit in Riyadh, propped up behind a podium.

Then, to the cheer and applause of the crowd, CNBC host Andrew Ross Sorkin awarded her the citizenship.

"I want to thank very much the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," she said in a robot voice. "I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction."

Sophia was well-known even before she made headlines for her Saudi citizenship. She has appeared as a guest on the Jimmy Fallon show, been interviewed by Charlie Rose and graced the cover of Elle magazine.

Which is exactly why, some analysts say, she was made part of the summit.

"The crown prince is trying to appeal to an international investor audience by portraying a narrative that Saudi Arabia is changing," says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

"The citizenship was more of a public relations exercise," he adds, "appealing to the sort of Silicon Valley tech sectors that the crown prince has been moving in."

The prince has laid out an ambitious program called Vision 2030 in which he wants to see his country's economy move beyond oil. One of his most ambitious projects is a $500 billion city built from scratch. Neom, as it's called, is going to be a city of the future, with more robots than people. The prince's goal is to create the world's top business hub with advanced manufacturing, biotech, media and airlines.

In order to achieve that, says Ulrichsen, the country needs foreign investments. And that was the point of last week's summit: To get international business giants interested in investing in Saudi Arabia.

But awarding citizenship to a foreign-made machine didn't sit well with some Saudis. Some pointed out the irony that Sophia, who appeared on stage without a hijab and abaya (full-length robe), enjoys more rights than women in the kingdom.

“It hit a sore spot that a robot has citizenship and my daughter doesn’t,” Hadeel Shaikh told Reuters. Shaikh is a Saudi woman whose 4-year-old child with a Lebanese man doesn’t have citizenship. Saudi Arabia doesn't grant citizenship to children of women married to a foreign man. It also doesn't allow foreign workers to become citizens no matter how long they have been in the country.

It's not clear what rights Sophia has as a robot with citizenship. PRI made an inquiry about this to Hanson Robotics and asked whether Sophia will stay in Saudi Arabia. As of this writing, the company hasn't responded.

Meanwhile, other critics point out the ethical questions that come with bestowing human rights to robots. Typically a citizen of a country has rights such as owning property or voting in elections. If we start handing out citizenship to robots, are we trivializing these rights?

Kate Darling, a researcher at MIT's Media Lab, says she doesn't see a movement to give robots human rights.

"The robots that we have today are very primitive machines that are much dumber than insects," she explains, "and so I think that conversations about civil rights or these machines inherently deserving any kind of right is pretty far away."

Darling adds that we usually award rights to people in the scope of what they are capable of. For example, she says, children don't have the same rights as adults because they are not able to make their own choices and decisions.

"Given that robots today are still primitive pieces of technology, they are not going to be able to make use of their rights."

Yet last January, the European Parliament debated whether it should grant robots "personhood" status. Mady Delvaux, a member of European Parliament from Luxembourg and author of a report presented at the bloc's legislature, argued that “a growing number of areas of our daily lives are increasingly affected by robotics. In order to address this reality and to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework.”

There could be a time, Darling says, when we might want to start thinking about certain legal protections for robots. Not for the robot's sake, but for our own.

"As people interact more and more with these lifelike devices, we tend to treat them like living things," she explains, "and that can have an impact on our own behavior."

For example, she says, "if it's desensitizing to children or even to adults to be violent towards very life-like robots ... then there would be an argument for restricting what people can and cannot do."