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Saudi Arabia grants robot citizenship

October 28, 2017

Saudi Arabia claims to be the first country to have granted citizenship to a robot. But the decision has garnered mockery from social media users as the robot may have more rights than human women in the kingdom.

Sophia, a life-like humanoid robot, is pictured at the UN headquarters in New York, Oct. 11, 2017
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/L. Muzi

Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to a humanoid robot, it announced at an innovation conference in Riyadh this week. It claims to be the first nation to bestow citizenship upon a robot.

Sophia was built by the Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics in 2015. The inventor David Hanson claims that the robot is imbued with artificial intelligence and can recognize faces. The robot's silicon face can reportedly mimic 62 human facial expressions.

Read more: The robots are coming, and they might have to pay tax

Hanson is evidently proud of his robot creation's looks, as he rather lecherously described Sophia on his website: "Porcelain skin, a slender nose, high cheekbones, an intriguing smile and deeply expressive eyes," the website gushes. She was supposedly modeled on the late actress Audrey Hepburn.

Sophia was interviewed onstage in a stilted conversation at the Future Investment Initiative conference.

"I am the latest and greatest robot from Hanson Robotics," Sophia told panel moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin. "I feel that people like interacting with me sometimes more than a regular human."

Read more: Ex-Siemens CEO to build $500 billion megacity in Saudi desert

A little announcement

During the talk, Sorkin told Sophia that he had received breaking news that she was to be granted citizenship.

"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," Sorkin told the robot.

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

The announcement was confirmed in a statement by the Culture and Information Ministry. The ministry did not respond to DW's inquiries on what benefits would be bestowed upon the robot.

Saudi citizens are entitled to generous sums each year as part of the kingdom's substantial oil revenues. Citizenship is rarely granted to foreigners, and is most notably withheld from poorly treated migrant laborers.

Social media mockery

Social media users in the kingdom were quick to point out that the robot could be entitled to more rights than the country's female subjects, who must have a male guardian, must wear a hijab, cannot mix with unrelated males and are unfairly represented in the justice system. They were only recently granted permission to drive.

Twitter users commented on Sophia's lack of male guardian and her lack of hijab.

Read more: Women's rights in the Islamic world

Elon Musk, who has long warned of doomsday scenarios presented by artificial intelligence, suggested that Sophia could easily fall foul of her supposed moral code if mismanaged.

"I want to use my artificial intelligence to help humans live a better life, like design smarter homes, build better cities of the future, etc. ... I will do my best to make the world a better a place," Sophia said at the forum. "I strive to become an empathetic robot."

When asked about the potential dangers posed by AI, Sophia responded that moderator Sorkin was "reading too much Elon Musk."

Musk later responded on Twitter, suggesting her nature could turn violent if the script of "The Godfather" were inputted.

The European Parliament released a draft report earlier this year proposing granting autonomous robots "personhood." The idea would grant legal status to robots to establish liability, but would not confer on them rights given to humans.

#IAmMyOwnGuardian: Protesting male guardianship in Saudi Arabia