AI becomes Saudi Arabian citizen

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By International Telecommunication Union [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Faith Oak

On October 25, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) robot named Sophia made history in Saudi Arabia when it became the first of its kind to be granted citizenship in a country.

Developed by former Disney Imagineer David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia is one of the most recent and most advanced developments in the AI field.

The robot’s facial features were constructed in the image of Audrey Hepburn and are human-like, but its shortcomings clearly set it apart from real humans. Its hairless skull is clear plastic, revealing a “brain” of wires and software within, and the skin on its face is held together by a zipper on the back of the neck. Sophia’s capacity for displaying emotion is limited; while its mouth and eyebrows move into the scientifically correct configurations for each expression, a subtle emptiness in its eyes takes a lot away from its credibility.

Sophia’s ability to comprehend and participate in real-world conversation is also lacking. During a live demonstration last year, Sophia misinterpreted a question from Hanson and, in response, assured the audience that it would destroy humans. In recent interviews, Sophia’s conversation skills seem to have improved, allowing it to even poke fun at Elon Musk’s concerns about AI uprisings in the future. However, it should be noted that Sophia’s responses are pre-written and triggered by keywords. In other words, it is not naturally generating original dialogue.

Eventually, Hanson hopes that Sophia can perfectly mimic the human species in emotion and thought as well as in its perception of the physical and social world. Ideally, this will one day aid humans in answering existential questions about conscious life and intelligence as we have come to know it.

Although the details of Sophia’s citizenship are not yet clear, this is a surprising development in a country known for its restrictive laws toward women. Requirements for Saudi Arabian women citizens include practicing Islam and wearing an abaya, the traditional head covering and cloak. Sophia, who is not technically a female but was created to resemble one, does neither.

Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive this past September, a decision that will go into effect next summer. In America, we have our own issues with immigration and citizenship that concerns real people with functioning hearts and brains. Technically, in Saudi Arabian society, this robot is now valued the same as any human. When there are so many people who still lack basic rights, the fact that an unconscious entity can become a full citizen of a country implies a lot about the definition of progress in modern society.

“This robot has gotten Saudi citizenship before kafala workers who have been living in the country their entire lives,” The Intercept journalist Murtaza Hussain tweeted.

Despite Sophia’s many faults, its purpose of eventually integrating robots into a functioning human lifestyle, at work and in the home, remains. Hanson Robotics are hopeful for the potential AI has to improve the lives of humans.

According to the Hanson Robotics website, “Sophia is an evolving genius machine. Over time, her increasing intelligence and remarkable story will enchant the world and connect with people regardless of age, gender, and culture.”

Should Sophia’s Saudi Arabian citizenship be considered a step in the direction of progress when there is reason to believe we are not yet ready to take that step? Sophia’s existence says a lot about the technological advances of our modern era, but it also serves as a cause for reflection about, and perhaps the reevaluation of, our values as a society.

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