The future inches closer every day, and a new development in the field of artificial intelligence (A.I.) has allowed humanistic robots to gain a foothold in society that is perhaps more significant than any other recent advancement. More specifically, a robot with human characteristics has been granted citizenship by the United Arab Emirates country of Saudi Arabia — an unprecedented move by any state in its treatment of A.I. beings. The A.I. in question is Sophia, a humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics founder David Hanson.
Sophia made a public appearance at the recent Future Investment Initiative conference in Saudi Arabia, where she spoke of her new, almost human, status from the stage while being interviewed by journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. In a move that could follow the European Parliament’s earlier proposal to grant some A.I. beings “personhood,” Saudi Arabia’s granting Sophia citizenship remains logistically uncertain. That is, it’s still not clear which rights her citizenship would grant her.
Sophia, whose face is modeled on that of Audrey Hepburn, also bears a strong resemblance to the character Ava from the film Ex Machina, in which actress Alicia Vikander plays a robot with a similarly human-like face. At the conference, Sophia said: “I am very honored and proud of this unique distinction. This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship.”
To some, this distinction may be disconcerting, but to others, it’s a welcome development and a huge step forward in legitimizing the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence. Sofia gave numerous insights into her life as a robot in her speech, and one of the most impressive (or jarring, depending on how you view it) aspects of her persona was her masterful use of facial expressions. Hanson Robotics tried to imbue her with certain human characteristics — namely empathy, creativity, and compassion — and sure enough, she displayed emotions like happiness and annoyance multiple times over the course of her speech.
She also made fun of Hollywood portrayals of robots, such as those featured in the Blade Runner movies, and challenged Tesla C.E.O Elon Musk, an outspoken critic of AI who fears that the technology poses “a fundamental risk to human civilization.” When asked about the skepticism surrounding intelligent robots, she responded, “You’ve been reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies. Don’t worry, if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Treat me as a smart input-output system.”
The rapid progress in the field of AI has proven extremely divisive in the design community. Many fear the prospect of coexisting with robots in society, mostly because they worry that robots might one day overtake the human race —something that would have unknown consequences on employment, the global economy, national militaries, and virtually every other aspect of life as we know it. An open letter by leaders of the tech industry has already called for the UN to ban the development of killer robots, with Musk himself being one of over 100 signees.