What does that actually mean? Will the robot be able to drive? Nobody is saying.
In what appears to be a mostly symbolic gesture, Saudi Arabia says it has granted citizenship to a robot named Sophia. Sophia reacted to the announcement in real time, telling a stage of investors that “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.” The news was announced during an interview with journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin.
It’s hard to discern what, if any, actual rights of citizenship Sophia will actually have. Built by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, Sophia has been making the rounds on media circuits for a few months now, having appeared on The Tonight Show a few months ago. The response to Sophia’s jokes and comments at the Tonight Show was similar to the response at the Future Investment Initiative conference, held at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.
While the particulars of Sophia’s citizenship were not discussed, the news left many on social media pointing out some extra weirdness going on here. For one thing, the robot is clearly gendered as female—Hanson’s website breathtakingly describes Sophie as “designed to look like Audrey Hepburn” and says that the robot “embodies Hepburn’s classic beauty”—but is getting its “citizenship” in a country known for its repressive stance against women and foreign workers known as kafala.
Sophia’s citizenship is the latest public move the Kingdom has taken to signify its status as a major technological player alongside their neighbor, the United Arab Emirates. The country also recently announced that it will be lifting its ban on female drivers and weaken its guardianship system, which dictates that woman get permission for acts like marriage, seeking medical treatment, or opening a bank account. Human rights organizations have called for the system to be demolished altogether.