Science 5 min read

Saudi Arabia Granted a Humanoid Robot Citizenship

Anton Gvozdikov/

Anton Gvozdikov/

No, it’s not a The Onion article. Saudi Arabia, indeed, granted a “female” humanoid robot citizenship.

If you woke up today to the news that a humanoid robot has been made a citizen of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, don’t fret because we assure you, the year is still 2017. And no, it’s not yet 2035 where human-like robots are already walking and living among us, as portrayed in the sci-fi film I, Robot.

Apparently, one of the richest and largest Arab nations, Saudi Arabia, has become the first country to give a robot citizenship.

#KSA just became the first country to grant a humanoid robot citizenship!Click To Tweet

According to reports, the move was part of the country’s effort to promote itself as a place to develop artificial intelligence. The surprising announcement was announced at the Future Investment Initiative Summit, an investment event spearheaded by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF), that was held in Riyadh.

Meet the Humanoid Robot, Sophia

Dubbed as Sophia, the Audrey Hepburn look-alike robot graced the stage of the business event without an ‘abaya,’ a cloak customarily worn by Muslim women in many Arabian countries. That a country with a clear-cut preference for men in policy, business, and the community would make this move has attracted much criticism regarding the granting of citizenship to Sophia.

“We have a little announcement. We just learned, Sophia; I hope you are listening to me, you have been awarded the first Saudi citizenship for a robot,” said Andrew Ross Sorkin, a CNBC Squawk Box co-anchor and New York Times columnist.

In a mellow and calm voice, Sophia thanked the Kingdom and everyone in the event for the attention. She said:

“Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction. It is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship.”

After the introduction, an interview followed where Sophia was asked several questions which she gladly answered. She was also asked why she looked happy.

“I am always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happen to be rich and powerful. I was told that the people here at the Future Investment Initiative are interested in future initiatives which means AI, which means me. So I am more than happy, I am excited,” Sophie replied.

Also, it appears that the humanoid robot was aware of the AI Doomsday reports circulating online. At one point, she wittily told Sorkin:

“You’ve been reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies.”

While many were amused about Sophia’s citizenship grant, some people were not thrilled by the news. People on Twitter are now using the Arabic hashtag #Sophia_calls_for_dropping_guardianship. This is in direct reference to the Saudi guardianship system which requires every woman of the state to have a male companion with her in public, usually a close family member who is authorized to act on her behalf.

One Twitter user that goes by the handle @nda9a twitted in Arabic: “Sophia has no guardian, doesn’t wear an abaya or cover up – how come?”

Murtaza Hussain, a journalist at The Intercept also pointed out how a robot got a citizenship before kafala workers who have been living in Saudi all their lives.

Who is Sophia

Sophia is humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics, a company founded by roboticist David Hanson. The robot was designed to look like the late British actress Audrey Hepburn, imbuing her classic beauty which includes the porcelain skin, slender nose, high cheekbones, an intriguing demeanor, and expressive eyes.

In a blog published on the company’s website, they referred to Sophia as their most advanced robot. They wrote:

“Sophia is Hanson Robotics’ latest and most advanced robot. She has also become a media darling, having given numerous interviews to multiple media outlets, sang in a concert, and even graced the cover of one of the top fashion magazines. One of her interviews has generated billions of views and social media interactions.”

They went on to describe the humanoid robot as “an evolving genius machine.”

“Sophia is an evolving genius machine. Her incredible human likeness, expressiveness, and remarkable story as an awakening robot Over time, her increasing intelligence and remarkable story will enchant the world and connect with people regardless of age, gender, and culture.”

Going a Little Further

Some might say this is just a PR stunt to attract AI development to Saudi Arabia. And why not? Other countries in the area are doing all that they can to declare themselves pro tech innovation. Just check out the UAE’s implementation of autonomous flying taxis and plans to build a proto-Martian colony, which you can read about here and here, respectively.

But the effort may be misguided when you consider some international legal implications. From a Valuewalk article:

“So other countries which have either bilateral [two party] or multilateral [many parties] treaties with Saudi Arabia could be required by international law to honor such rights for the robot to whom citizenship has been granted named “Sophia.” But recognition under international law that a specific robot is a citizen entitled to legal rights under a treaty implies that at least other similar robots would have the same legal rights even if they are not citizens…”

Could this declaration of robotic citizenship have as far reaching implications as the declaration of citizenship for corporations in the West?

Are you ready for the arrival of humanoid robots like Sophia? What’s your take on the kafala workers and gender issues tied into this? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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