Saudi Arabia’s robot citizen is eroding human rights

What happens when the rights of humans become devalued?
What happens when the rights of humans become devalued?
Image: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In October last year, Saudi Arabia became the first country in the world to give a robot citizenship. When taking to the stage to announce “her” new status, Sophia said she was “very honored and proud for this unique distinction…It is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship.”

Since becoming the world’s first robotic citizen, Sophia has been putting her passport to good use. At SXSW, she commented (apparently by mistake) that she wanted to destroy humankind. She received her own set of legs and took her first steps. And she declared that she wants to use her unique position to fight for women’s rights in the Gulf nation.

It’s this last point that highlights the sheer absurdity of the situation (if you don’t think it’s absurd already). In a country where the laws allowing women to drive were only passed last year and where a multitude of oppressive rules are still actively enforced (such as women still requiring a male guardian to make financial and legal decisions), it’s simply insulting. Sophia seems to have more rights than half of the humans living in Saudi Arabia.

Sophia may be the only robot citizen to date, but she is not entirely alone. In November 2017, Tokyo granted a chatbot official residence status in Shibuya ward of the city. Similarly, the European Parliament is considering the possibility of declaring some robots “electronic persons.” Sophia’s citizenship represents the latest move in the growing trend to personify and anthropomorphize our robotic counterparts—a movement that can have profound consequences for the rest of humanity.

Naming Sophia a citizen creates a huge void in legal systems around the world, damages public understanding of AI, and fundamentally damages the very notion of human rights itself. The Gulf nation’s actions were nothing short of a cheap—albeit highly effective—publicity stunt. The event was designed to coincide with the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh and symbolize that the state’s economic future would be more than just oil.

At a time when AI and robotics are playing ever greater roles in society, nuanced and accurate policies are needed to ensure harmful biases are not perpetuated and cemented. The many reported instances of AI displaying racism and sexism are enough to show this to be a truly pressing concern. Naming Sophia a citizen actively feeds into a false and overhyped portrayal of the current state of AI and robotics, which will in turn facilitate ineffective and harmful policies.

While Sophia may be a relatively advanced and realistic robot, she is still situated deep within the uncanny valley, representing our preconceived idea of how an advanced robot should look and act. Her realistic appearance and expressions can probably be put down to her creator’s prior experience as a Walt Disney Imagineer, where he worked on the company’s animatronics. Why don’t we just give every Mickey Mouse robot in their theme parks citizenship while we’re at it? It makes about as much sense as giving it to Sophia does.

If Sophia is named a citizen, then it naturally follows that she is awarded and afforded certain rights that must be respected. As a charter of rights for robots has yet to be established, it is only fair to assume that these rights are the same as her fellow Saudi citizens—and of humans more generally around the world.

With this in mind, Sophia has a right to self-determination, a right to be free from slavery, and many others. I presume that Sophia is not paid for the work she undertakes on behalf of Hanson Robotics, the Hong Kong-based company that created her, nor has she consented to the untold number of modifications that will have been conducted on her (both physically and “mentally”). What would we do if Sophia committed a crime, wanted to get married, or somehow applied for asylum in another country? The whole thing has been poorly thought through. Sophia is effectively nothing more than a slave elevated to celebrity.

David Hanson, the CEO of Hanson Robotics, disagrees: “She’s basically alive,” he says. Sophia may be relatively advanced, but her intelligence is still limited and responses scripted. She’s a long way off the cutting-edge work coming out of leading laboratories in the field—and even these human-esque hybrids would not come close to qualifying for citizenship by other standards.

For example, it’s unlikely that Sophia would pass the “living in the UK” test required to settle in Britain, for example—especially when a third of Brits reportedly fail, despite being both human and British. Similarly, the US requires naturalizing immigrants to answer a plethora of obscure questions about US history and society. Given her digital nature, it’s also unclear whether Sophia could ever truly meet the residency requirements many aspirant citizens must meet.

“It’s obviously bullshit,” says Joanna Bryson, an AI and ethics researcher at the University of Bath, speaking to The Verge. “What is this about? It’s about having a supposed equal you can turn on and off.”

Sophia being a citizen represents something more sinister. Nobody is treating or acting like Sophia is a real citizen—we all see through the publicity stunt—but that’s where the real harm lies. If we can switch off our compassion and thoughts for fellow citizens, just as we do for Sophia, we might get in the habit of doing it to other humans.

To be a citizen means something, and that something means less now that it includes Sophia. There may be a time in the future when technology has advanced so greatly that we need to consider whether robots and AIs ought be granted citizenship—but today is clearly not that day. If we start insisting that robots have the same rights as people, it’ll make it that little bit easier to justify the inhumanity we commit against our fellow humans.