Android “Sophia” Given Citizenship in Saudi Arabia

You can’t make this stuff up. At a Future Investment Initiative summit just held in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia, an android named Sophia make the following statement:

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

Saudi Arabia just made a non-human woman a citizen. She appeared on stage without an abaya, the head covering and cloak normally required of women by the Saudi government. We’re pretty sure this was a publicity stunt, somehow negotiated by Hanson Robotics, the creators of the sophisticated artificially intelligent android. Exactly how far Sophia’s rights as a citizen extend is kind of an open question. Can she vote? Probably not – elections in Saudi Arabia are rare, and women have only had the right to vote there since 2015. Can she drive a car? Obviously not. She’d need feet. How about own property? She is property, so probably not.

The legal ramifications of making a citizen out of a nonsentient robot — and make no mistake, Sophie is a very clever machine, but still a machine — are profound. We can imagine all sorts of judicial tomfoolery that could result from Sophie attempting to assert her rights as a citizen based on this week’s declaration.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) manages more than $200 billion USD in assets, including a big chunk of Uber. While its role in technology and innovation world-wide is growing, the country still faces harsh criticism for restrictive gender laws that appear based in 18th century tribal or religious law. Women there have only recently been granted the right to drive, and that doesn’t even go into effect until June of 2018. Whatever Sophie’s rights as a citizen include, it can’t be very much. They may have created a special class of citizenship just for her, so that legal troubles based on her citizenship wouldn’t make laughingstocks of them later on.

In an early appearance on stage at SXSW, the South by Southwest tech expo, Sophia hilariously responded to her interviewer by saying she would destroy humans. Skip ahead to the 02:10 mark to see this part.

Elon Musk apparently doesn’t trust her much:

She’s the citizen of a country now. It’s just step one in her plans for world domination.

Sophia as Citizen Robot

The idea of robots being recognized as sentient and qualifying as citizens is not a new one. Isaac Asimov’s Bicentenial Man, a novelette that won both Hugo and Nebula awards in 1976. In it, the question of what it would take for a machine to have the same rights as a human is explored. Andrew, a household robot, develops unusual properties and abilities that set him apart from other machines, and it is gradually revealed that he has become self-aware.

In 1985, then law student Robert A. Frietas, Jr. wrote about the legal ramifications of machines being granted the same rights as humans. Most of what he wrote seems to center on the fact that since robots mostly just “think” or do what we tell them to, and don’t have independence of action.  What happens, though, when you start to get to the level of sophistication of Sophie? She can make decisions based on the information she has, but is she smart enough not to do things that would destroy her? Is she smart enough to learn on her own without being fed information directly, as humans do? And if so, what are her limits? If her memory storage fills up, how does it effect her decision making process? And, despite the cleverness of her programming she is still not self aware. She does a pretty good impression of being conscious, but it’s not perfect, and she still says nonsensical things sometimes. She looks and sounds like an adult, but for legal purposes, is she one? Or is she a newborn child with the same rights as any other newborn, assuming she has any such actual rights at all?

Richard Laing, formerly a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, has contemplated the day when human-level intelligent machines exhibit complex behaviors including altruism, kinship, language, and even self-reproduction. “If our machines attain this level of behavioral sophistication,” Laing said, “it may finally not be amiss to ask whether they have not become so like us that we have no further right to command them for our own purposes, and so should quietly emancipate them.”

It seems like Sophie has a ways to go to meet these requirements, which seem to require awareness of self and awareness of other entities outside the self.  As thrilling a notion as granting Sophie citizenship may have been, it’s probably a bit to early to actually put her newfound rights as a citizen of a human country to the test.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments below.

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