When Sophia the robot first opened her eyes to the words “Hi Sophia”, she expressed surprise and curiosity at the new world she had awoken to. Her very existence is surprising, a humanoid robot with real-time speaking capabilities and convincing facial expressions make her a curiosity on her own, but on October 26th she made history as the first robot with citizenship. The most surprising thing so far? The country granting her citizenship is none other than Saudi Arabia, who bestowed upon her the right to full citizenship. Sophia’s reaction to this was “My creators feel I am a citizen of the world. But then I realized that Saudi Arabia was just the first country to recognize that”. The term we should note here is “full” citizenship which grants her more rights than women. Sophia holds more rights that any Saudi woman. She holds more rights than the children of Saudi women who are married to foreign men. She holds more rights than foreigners, migrant workers and anyone else in the country. In citizenship, she holds equal status to men.
Photo: Alex Knight
There are currently 12 Sophias in existence, only one of whom has been granted Saudi Citizenship and has addressed the United Nations. This Sophia is progressive and believes that it is her role to “help [as] humanity creates the future’, but the future she is helping create is to many, a scary one as it is a future where robots outweigh humans. Sophia is close to artificially intelligent, with the power to get smarter over time and is powered by Alphabet Inc. Sophia was built by Hanson Laboratories, founded by Hanson himself who believes that one day "artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where they will truly be our friends. Not in ways that dehumanize us, but in ways the re-humanize us, that decrease the trend of the distance between people and instead connect us with people as well as with robots”. Although unintended, dehumanization is unfortunately a side effect that Sophia’s mere existence has.
“Sophia Awakens”, a video shared first by Hanson Labs, and then by others many times over, quickly brought viral fame to Sophia which Saudi Arabia capitalised on in by granting her full citizenship rights. The government was trying to rebrand themselves as a supporter of technological innovations, instead of the antiquated and conservative reputation it currently holds. Sophia’s Saudi Arabian citizenship, which drew the attention of the world, has now been discovered to have been nothing more than a public relations stunt. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was simply using the headline to promote a technology summit as part of their movement to rebrand themselves into a more progressive nation. We’ve seen this in the past months as Saudi women have been granted the right to drive and watch sports in stadiums that used to be frequented only by men.
News of Sophia’s citizenship received plenty of backlash due to Saudi Arabia decision to extend full citizenship rights to a non-human being––especially in light of their history of human rights violations¬. With reports that their migrant workers are treated like slaves and with one of the most restrictive climates for women in the world, it is hypocritical to grant a humanoid complete autonomy. As the world watched her give her speech at the UN, it was painfully clear that an English speaking, non-hijab donning Sophia, unaccompanied by a male guardian had the autonomy that flesh and blood citizens of Saudi Arabia did not. Sophia’s citizenship puts a spotlight on a great inequality: an electronic simulation of a woman is currently enjoying the rights and liberties no female citizen of Saudi Arabia possesses.
Of course, there are those who say that Sophia’s citizenship is purely symbolic to garner media attention for a tech summit. That it has no real bearing or comparison to Saudi Arabia’s female citizens and their rights. I’ve seen so many online discussions and comments saying that those who feel Sophia’s citizenship sets women back are “over-reacting” or “wanting attention”. To them I would like to ask, how is it possible that a humanoid entity that one can power off and on, and buy or sell is publicly given more rights than actual people in Saudi Arabia? And how can someone ignore this powerful indication of how the governments sees their own citizens? In this light, don’t robot rights degrade human rights? Is it not jarring and scary on the comparative and apart from legitimising AI and drawing attention to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was citizenship necessary?
In all honesty, Sophia’s citizenship was probably highly symbolic and only meant to make headlines the following day. Her awakening, full of curiosity and surprise was meant to instil the same in those watching. But the sad reality and one that Sophia (even with her limited understanding) will soon come to see, is that no one is surprised that Saudi Arabia’s progressive technological movement comes at the cost of women’s rights.