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.
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'.