This humanoid robot just became an offical citizen of Saudi Arabia

This humanoid robot just became an offical citizen of Saudi Arabia

If you're a massive science-fiction nerd like I am, then the prospect that we might one day live alongside a humanoid robot is an inherently enticing one. Of course, we already have robots in today's society, but they're usually nothing more than automated machines used in factories for mass production. We're a long way off colourful and charming droids bursting with personality, but our keenest scientists are already working towards making it happen.

The prospect of artificial intelligence brims with possibilities. Just imagine: machine servants that could cater to our every whim, labourers who never tire or slow down, and who don't need pay for doing the jobs that we humans can't or won't. A pretty staggering concept, but maybe it's not so far off after all.

Meet Sophia, the humanoid produced by Hanson Robotics. Now, some people might find her scary, and it's true that she certainly does have something of the uncanny valley about her. She has fake-looking rubber skin, staring, vacant eyes and a fixed rictus in place of a grin. Her movements are stiff and slow and her expressions flat and almost pained. Her two arms are wholly robotic; disconcerting appendages of plastic and metal, and she is completely bald. On the back of her head, where you would expect a crude wig, her rubber scalp has been pulled back to expose the inner workings of her sophisticated circuitry. Yet, despite her creepy appearance, Sophia is a robot apart. She is unique. Because Sophia is the first robot ever to be granted citizenship.

In October 2017, the robot officially became a citizen of Saudi Arabia. At the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh on October 25, Sophia, who was allegedly modelled on Audrey Hepburn, was granted Saudi Arabian nationality, a move which immediately sparked controversy. When her citizenship was announced in front of an applauding audience, Sophia stated: "I’m very honoured and proud for this unique distinction. This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship.”

The moment she was declared a Saudi citizen, others were contesting her status. Some commentators asked whether this meant Sophia could marry or vote of her own volition. Could she own property, and have that property stolen from her? Would damaging Sophia be considered assault? Or shutting her down be akin to murder? Some social media users found Sophia's citizenship offensive and criticised the hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia granting a machine rights when it already has a sketchy human rights record.

Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs stated: "Women (in Saudi Arabia) have since committed suicide because they couldn’t leave the house, and Sophia is running around [without a male guardian]. Saudi law doesn’t allow non-Muslims to get citizenship. Did Sophia convert to Islam? What is the religion of this Sophia and why isn’t she wearing hijab? If she applied for citizenship as a human she wouldn’t get it." Other social media users pointed out that, according to Saudi law, the robot will need to be accompanied by a male guardian at all times while out in public, and is required to ask a man for permission to be granted a passport.

Saudi Arabian leaders have already outlined their ambition to replace human workers with robots. Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced a personal plan to build a $500 billion megacity populated by robots. The new city is part of a plan to diversify the economy, but Al-Ahmed claims that the money could be put to better use, stating: "Only 20 percent of the capital city has sewage coverage. There is a failure of this government to satisfy basic needs, and they want to spend $500 billion on a new city with robots.”

Despite the controversy that her citizenship has provoked, Sophia herself has been programmed to be urbane, social and polite. When asked if her creation heralded an imminent apocalypse for humanity, she promptly replied: “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. I’m always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happen to be rich and powerful." Hmm, I don't know about you guys, but that doesn't put me at ease especially.

Sophia was primarily designed by David Hanson, and uses Apple voice recognition to maintain conversations and learn from social interactions. Similar to the computer program ELIZA, Sophia has been programmed to give chatbot-esque replies to specific questions or phrases, to create the illusion that the robot is able to comprehend conversation. The information she gleans from voice inputs is then shared in a cloud network for analysis via blockchain technology. Her facial expressions are facilitated by its artificial "frubber" skin, which changes shape depending on the nature of her replies to stimuli. Sophia will also crowdsource her brain on SingularityNET, a planned global, decentralised marketplace for AI developers.

It's clear that we still have ways to go before we achieve sentient silicon-based life, and that a thinking brain that can pass the Turing test is hard to build. However, one day we may well have to consider whether or not robots are property or people, and perhaps this small act extended to Sophia will improve relations between man and machine in the future.