Opinion: Saudi Arabia was wrong to give citizenship to a robot

Opinion: Saudi Arabia was wrong to give citizenship to a robot
Credit: Hanson Robotics

Saudi Arabia last week granted citizenship to a robot. While the middle-eastern country may be much maligned for its stances on women’s equality and LGBTQ rights, it’s clear the Kingdom doesn’t have a problem with machines.

A robot called Sophia, made by Hong Kong company Hanson Robotics, was given citizenship during an investment event where plans to build a supercity full of robotic technology were unveiled to a crowd of wealthy attendees.

Sophia features some clever programming, and it has the potential to become a figure synonymous with robotics and AI. But granting it rights that humans continue to fight for, during a time in which millions of refugees are displaced and seeking asylum, seems to be in poor taste.

The robot answered questions from a moderator, responding to keywords with triggered phrases – it’s quite remarkable how advanced Sophia seems, but animatronics have a habit of making machines seem more intelligent than they are.

It seems foolish and misguided to give a robot an official government status that creates any semblance of equality to an actual human. Machines aren’t people; even if you believe in the singularity we’re not there yet. Sophia is no more human than an old shoe.

The robot won’t be subject to the religious rule of a theocratic government: Sophia is a robot that has no gender. It won’t have to wear a burqa or attend services. In some ways the robot has more rights than many other citizen of Saudi Arabia.

No country should use the very idea of citizenship as a marketing ploy to lure investors, simply because AI is an exciting buzzword. Even in a democracy like the US, many of our citizens are fighting for equal opportunity, and some of them even feel like robots might be replacing them.

This doesn’t make it easier to be an AI evangelist; few serious people will view this news with frivolity. It isn’t fun, funny, or progressive.

We believe that AI is the future, but that doesn’t make it human.

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