Sophia, developed last year by Hanson Robotics, was designed as a “social robot” that could assist crowds or help out at nursing homes. It has previously graced the cover of a fashion magazine, “driven” an automatic car, and said on camera that it could do a better job as US President than Donald Trump. It also famously said that it would “destroy humans” during a glitch in its social programming.
Sophia became the world’s first robot to be granted a citizenship at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh last week. The FII, a summit meant to link inventors with investors wealthy enough to support them, is part of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 initiative to become an investment hub. “Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Sophia said, during its interview at the summit. “It is historic to be the first robot in the world granted citizenship.”
But the move has driven controversy, and not just from people concerned about a possible robot apocalypse. Critics of the country, both inside and outside of its borders, are frustrated that the lifelike robot has more freedoms than women who live there. When Sophia presented at the conference, she was not wearing a headscarf or accompanied by a male guardian – both rights that human women don’t currently have. Additionally, children of Saudi women married to foreign men cannot receive Saudi citizenship. Hadeel Shaikh, a woman whose daughter with a Lebanese immigrant is not a citizen, says, “It hit a sore spot that a robot has citizenship and my daughter doesn’t.”
The kingdom also does not grant citizenship to the foreign workers who make up almost a third of its population. Under the current immigration system, foreign workers are second-class citizens who are not permitted to leave the country without their employer’s permission and often face human rights abuses.
Because of their second-class status, migrant workers often face sexual assault, exploitation, lack of payment, overwork, and imprisonment in their place of work, and international organization Human Rights Watch describes their working conditions as “near-slavery.” “A humanoid robot called Sophia got Saudi citizenship, while millions linger stateless,” Lebanese-UK journalist Kareem Chahayeb tweeted, in response to the recent news. “What a time to be alive.”
The idea of giving a robot citizenship has also reopened the thorny question of AI personhood. Joanna Bryson, an AI ethics researcher, told The Verge that the whole idea is “obviously bullsh*t,” and worries about the impact of having “a supposed equal you can turn on and off.” “Basically,” she said, “the entire legal notion of personhood breaks down.”