Last week, Saudi Arabia made Sophia — a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence and neural networked computation — an honorary citizen. Saudi Arabia, thus, becomes the first country to recognise that the boundaries of human life and technology have been blurring for quite a while. This is not unprecedented because in other countries personhood has been granted to many other non-human agencies. For example, companies like Google, across the globe, have exercised their rights to free speech and expression. In other parts of the world, conversations have emerged around environmental rights where rivers and forests were given human rights in order to save them from exploitation and erasure. In Japan, the committee for the regulation of artificial intelligence for social good, since 2016, has already forwarded the idea of companion robots who will become quasi members of society, and, how artificial intelligence will help these robots integrate into human lives.
The publicity stunt that Saudi Arabia pulled with Sophia as the first robot citizen, however, does bring to the fore some more disconcerting points. While this well-calculated public relations gimmick might be positioned to put Saudi Arabia on the innovations map of the future, it does betray the fact that it now has the dubious fame of being a country where female-shaped robots have more rights than human women. In its press conference, Sophia appeared without the traditional headscarf, which is mandatory for all Saudi women to wear in public at all times. Sophia is allowed a voice, an agency and a sense of humour. It has been given the capacity and choice to talk to strangers and, in the future, the freedom to drive cars and stand up for its rights in a way that women in Saudi Arabia can’t.
Sophia, with its humanoid futures rendered in silicon and fibres, also gets citizenship in a country where tens of thousands of immigrant workers — who live in conditions of slavish exploitation — are not allowed citizenship or even permanent residence. Saudi Arabia’s laws do not allow for citizenship by naturalisation. Sophia’s honorary citizenship is yet another signal of how the future of human rights and entitlements is going to be blurred when technological artefacts and artificial intelligences start competing for similar status.
However, the most interesting part of Sophia’s new found personhood, is that Sophia, in fact, is not an individual entity. The robot might mimic human form and emotions, but, as a product of deep neural networking and machine learning, Sophia is extensively connected to multiple layers of computational data processing. There are super computers processing all its sensory input, algorithms that help it to navigate physical and social structures, distributed databases drawing from a language corpus that help it to formulate meaningful sentences; and, there are multiple artificial intelligence softwares that evolve and change Sophia’s behaviour through pattern recognition and deep learning.
Sophia is not just a thing in isolation. It is a gateway robot that opens up a series of questions of what happens when we actually interact with and invite sapient technologies into our lives. Granting Sophia citizenship also includes granting citizenship to a server situated somewhere else in the world. In fact, if you establish a connection between Sophia and your machine, and manage to merge the two computing systems, your machine could easily make claims to be a part of the extended citizenship that has been granted to Sophia.
It is important to remember that even as our machines appear more human, more personalised, they are not just a single thing. As we develop new intimacies with our neural networked devices, it is good to take a step back and remember that the rights of humans might still be worth championing over the state of machines.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.