Sophia looks like a human… for the most part. ©

Hanson Robotics Limited

Meet Sophia, the first robot with her own passport. Developed by Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics, she is able to imitate 62 human expressions using artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition and a connection to the World Wide Web. She is so advanced and lifelike that in 2017 the Saudi Arabian government made the unprecedented decision to grant her full citizenship of its country.

Meeting Sophia

Sophia was modelled on the actress Audrey Hepburn and company founder David Hanson’s wife and, with her incredible human likeness and expressiveness, you would be forgiven for mistaking her for a human – until you notice that the back of her skull is transparent, revealing the machinery inside.

Her makers hoped that what they describe on the Hanson Robotics website as Sophia’s 'simple elegance' would help her gain acceptance in the public sphere. It seems to be working: since obtaining legal personhood, she was named the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) first ever Innovation Champion. Perhaps in a move designed to counteract her now infamous threat to 'destroy humans', this new role involves promoting sustainable development and safeguarding human rights and equality.

According to the UNDP: 'Experts believe that artificial intelligence such as Sophia marks the coming of the fourth industrial revolution and will bring about a dramatic shift in how technology can help solve some of [global] development’s most intractable problems.' They go on to say that: 'In partnership with Sophia we can send a powerful message that innovation and technology can be used for good, to improve lives, protect the planet, and ensure that we leave no one behind.'

Alongside her advocacy work, Sophia has used her new-found status as a cultural icon in a variety of ways, from promoting tourism to plugging British television shows. She has also achieved more mundane milestones in her journey to becoming a 'person' – she’s the first non-human to own a credit card, for instance.

A model citizen

The announcement of Sophia’s Saudi Arabian citizenship on 25 October 2017 was a careful piece of marketing to position Saudi Arabia as a major world innovator in technology and computing. After years of blocking voice- and video-calling apps such as Skype, the country lifted the ban in 2017 in a move that, according to the BBC, was 'aimed at boosting productivity and economic growth'. The internet is becoming a more central part of the country’s economy, and Sophia is the perfect ambassador for this new innovative and connected image for Saudi Arabia.

Ben Goertzel, chief scientist of Hanson Robotics, once wrote on the Humanity+ blog that Sophia is 'smarter than humans in some ways – she has more knowledge in a sense, due to her brain being connected to the internet'. While Goertzel admits that Sophia will never be 'alive' in the same sense that humans are, he says that her connection to 'the internet of data and things will have a richer adaptive and self-organising nature than anything similar in the biological world'.

Meeting her maker: Sophia the CEO of Hanson Robotics, David Hanson ©

Hanson Robotics Ltd

Amid the international excitement about Sophia’s technological sophistication, the announcement of her citizenship has raised a number of questions about what it means to be a citizen. Will Sophia have all of the same rights as Saudi humans? Will she be allowed to marry? Can she commit a crime? Will she be given the right to vote?

The legal quandary

While Saudi Arabia is the first country to grant citizenship to an AI-enabled android, it is not alone in pushing for more rights for robots. In 2017 the European Parliament proposed a set of regulations to govern the use and creation of artificial intelligence, including the granting of 'electronic personhood' to the most advanced machines to ensure their rights and responsibilities.

But not everyone agrees that this is the best solution, and many experts fear that giving robots the same kind of citizenship as people will impinge on human rights. In an open letter, written to the European Commission in 2018, 150 experts in medicine, robotics, AI and ethics criticised the plans as 'ideological, nonsensical and non-pragmatic'. 

The letter outlines the belief that 'from an ethical and legal perspective, creating a legal personality for a robot is inappropriate', and also demands that the EU ensures a legal framework that is weighted towards 'the protection of robots’ users and third parties', rather than the robots themselves. 

These objections perhaps feel over-the-top, considering that Sophia has spent more time on television than in people's homes. But robots and AI-enabled machines also take the form of self-driving cars, or in-house robot carers for the vulnerable and elderly. In these contexts, the need for a legal framework for dealing with potential mistakes made by machines becomes more pressing. Despite Sophia’s citizenship having been intended as a publicity stunt, the questions it raises have opened up a huge debate that is a long way from being resolved.

See also

External links