During the Future Investment Initiative, which took place in Riyad at the end of October, Saudi Arabia has become the first country in the world to grant citizenship to a robot.
David Hanson, an American roboticist at the Hong-Kong based Hanson Robotics Company, has designed Sophia with healthcare, therapy, education and consumer service application in mind. Robots designed by Hanson Robotics are purposely built to look very human like, and are equipped with various innovative technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), facial and vocal recognition.
Sophia has a human face and is capable to imitate human facial expressions and gestures. She is also capable of answering questions, have simple conversations on predefined topics and even remember interactions and faces. This means that as the volume of interactions increases, she gets smarter and is capable of improving her social skills.
On October 25th, this state of the art robot obtained Saudi Citizenship. But, even if Sophia was built with the intention to assist humans with her AI and help us to « live a better life », the announcement of her citizenship nevertheless caused a major controversy.
A robot can’t be aware of its citizenship duties
According to Laurence Devilliers, a Sorbonne professor, a robot is incapable of being aware of its citizenship duties. Sophia is nothing but a mere bluff, a lie about the current state of AI and robots. Despite her speech capabilities and her realistic looking facial expressions, Sophia doesn’t have any consciousness of her own which makes this whole procedure pointless.
Citizenship grants you rights, privileges, and imposes duties upon its beholder. If you want to be a good citizen, you need to be aware of those rights and duties. All of our communities are built upon those rights and duties. How could a robot with no conscious at all possibly be aware of all social, political and psychological aspects of being a citizen? What’s the next step? A robot capable of voting or running for elections?
Nothing more than a publicity stunt
Since there is no reason to grant a citizenship to a robot, we need to look somewhere else to find a rationale. And you certainly don’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes to find answers. The prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is known for his desire to modernise his country. To do so, the young Saudi prince started a program called Saudi Vision 2030, intended to show to the world Saudi-Arabia’s capabilities in terms of advanced robotics. This communication campaign aligns perfectly with the vision of Hanson Robotics and helps them to put a spotlight on the company.
An ethical issue
The fact that a human-like robot has been granted citizenship creates a sense of confusion among the population. This could lead to irrational fears, as theorised by Masahiro Mori in his anthropomorphism theory. The more a robot looks like us, the more we feel empathy towards it, which could destabilise the population rather than helping it.
According to the current state of science, it’s impossible to give consciousness to a robot. Therefore a robot will never be like a human (okay, maybe in a very distant future). So, why else equip robots with human characteristics if not to amplify the general public fascination?
It’s no coincidence that CERNA, a French based digital technologies think tank, has put out a recommendation not to design robots, which resemble humans.
Obviously, by building Sophia, Hanson Robotics shows its lack of interest when it comes to ethical considerations, or simply does not share the same point of view. And what about Saudi authorities whose decision to give a robot citizenship only adds fuel to the fire?
This decision, which is nothing more than a publicity stunt contributes to the devaluation of citizenships. By according more rights to a robot than to women, Saudi-Arabia proved once more how hypocritical it can be. Indeed, Sophia is the only Saudi (woman), which can be seen in public without a headscarf. Those decisions can surely make someone doubt that we move in the right direction when it comes to robots.