The first robot citizen is a citizen of… Saudi Arabia

The humanoid robot Sophia filmed by “ELLE” Brasil (screen capture). © DR

The latest gimmick starring (or victimizing) the humanoid robot Sophia is the revelation of her citizenship… of Saudi Arabia. Announced on October 25 in Riyadh at the high-tech Future Investment Initiative symposium, where the bald humanoid stood alone behind the podium, wearing neither the headscarf nor the abaya required for all Saudi women, in front of a room full of men, the irony of this news provoked its share of indignation throughout the Islamic Kingdom and beyond.

Designed and developed in Hong Kong, in Saudi Arabia Sophia now enjoys more rights than Saudi women subject to the guardianship of their closest male relative, than migrant workers enslaved to the kafala system of sponsorship, and even more than primates granted personhood in certain Western countries.

Sophia said she was “very honored and proud for this unique distinction”.

If the Saudi government was trying to project an avant-garde approach to future technologies, its sudden and unexpected decision to grant full citizenship to a machine triggered a flood of less-than-thrilled reactions on Twitter. According to the BBC, the Arabic hashtag #Robot_with_Saudi_nationality was tweeted nearly 30,000 times within 24 hours of the announcement, soon followed by the more sarcastic hashtag #Sophia_calls_for_dropping_guardianship, which was posted almost 10,000 times the next day.

In a country where women were finally granted the right to drive just over a month ago, and where millions of kafala laborers who have been living in Saudi Arabia for most of their lives are still not naturalized, many people, like Lebanese journalist Kareem Chehayeb, deplored this unfortunate publicity stunt.

Others also raised the question of how long and to what extent Sophia would be exempted from local customs. Below, an image of Sophia wearing the hijab “after a while”.

Since her début at South by Southwest in March 2016, the Audrey Hepburn-inspired humanoid has been making appearances around the world, where her American creator and Pygmalion David Hanson, formerly a sculptor and technical consultant for Walt Disney, emphasizes Sophia’s sensitivity, expressiveness and empathy: “We’re making robots into a new form of computer animation. We’re humanizing robots by using the principles of figurative arts, animation and storytelling. And then we’re applying these as an interface for artificial intelligence.”

Humans are very visual social creatures, Hanson continues, who communicate through gestures and facial expressions. Like the ultra-realistic geminoids developed by Japanese robotics researcher Hiroshi Ishiguro, Sophia is above all a robot that simulates empathy by mimicking the gestural codes of humans. A.I.-wise, her well-scripted/well-edited interviews with the media betray Hollywood’s detached sense of irony, ticking all the boxes of the West’s conventional fear of robots that are too intelligent.

Unsurprisingly, she is much more successful in the visual and cosmopolitan world of fashion, where she shoots films in Hollywood studios dressed by Rick Owens, where she is among the elite humanoids of Asia who have their own stylist, and where she stole the spotlight on the cover of ELLE magazine in Brazil… Not bad for a Saudi citizen!

Interview with Sophia by ELLE Brasil, December 2016:

Makery newsletter

Biweekly, all the labs news you need to know.