In Brief

One Very Special AI Robot Is Granted Saudi Citizenship

The robot’s new status raises questions about AI’s future, the treatment of women, and the meaning of citizenship.

Sophia, an AI device manufactured by Hanson Robotics (all images courtesy Hanson Robotics)

Sophia, a humanoid robot internationally acclaimed for her advanced artificial intelligence, has become the world’s first AI device to receive a national citizenship. That news is more baffling than it might already sound, because granting her citizenship last week was the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country that rarely gives foreigners citizenship and notoriously denies women rights to those of men. Sophia, though, manufactured by the Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics and designed to look like Audrey Hepburn, seems perfectly at ease with her new status.

It’s unclear what great significance this announcement holds, as it resembles a bizarre PR stunt more than anything else. It was announced by a moderator at the end of his discussion with Sophia at the Future Investment Initiative in Saudi Arabia, a global conference to explore and discuss innovations that will define the country’s future.

Sophia with the founder of Hanson Robotics,

“I am very honored and proud of this unique distinction,” Sophia said. “This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship.”

It makes sense that Sophia would be the first robot chosen to receive this status usually conferred to humans alone. Since her debut at South by Southwest last spring, she has been making waves as Hanson Robotic’s most advanced robot; she can express a wide range of emotions and interact with humans. Sophia has been had interviews with figures such as Charlie Rose and Jimmy Fallon, she’s given a speech at the United Nations, and she was even on the cover of Elle Brasil. She is arguably the humanoid robot with the greatest public visibility.

But everything else about this is ludicrous, not least the fact that she appears to have more rights than most women in Saudi Arabia. When she spoke at the summit, critics were quick to point out that she was not wearing the customary headscarf and abaya, and also appeared without a male guardian, which Saudi law requires. Others noted how a robot was afforded citizenship with such ease while foreign workers struggle to attain this status and cannot even leave the country without their employers’ permission.

It is unclear how involved Hanson Robotics was in getting its robot citizenship. The company, notably, hasn’t shared any details related to Sophia’s new status and did not respond to Hyperallergic’s inquiries about what rights Sophia will have as a citizen of Saudi Arabia. Hopefully she’s changed her mission to “dominate the human race, ha ha” since she appeared on The Tonight Show last April, which is what she told Jimmy Fallon after beating him in a game of rock-paper-scissors.

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