A month after becoming the last country in the world to allow women to drive, Saudi Arabia recently became the first to grant citizenship to a robot.
Sophia, a robot developed by Hong Kong-based tech company Hanson Robotics, was declared a naturalized citizen at the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on October 25, 2017. The conference, sponsored by the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund, was the nation’s attempt to promote their ambitious economic diversification plan to investors.
Saudi Vision 2030, the government’s official plan that sets out technological goals for the next decade, is an effort to expand from oil to growing service sectors like health, tourism, and technology. But the economic proposals put forward were not what captivated the investors in the audience and all over the world.
Sophia, built to resemble the late Audrey Hepburn, is not a typical robot. At the conference, she stood at the podium and responded to the panel moderator’s questions with poise and emotion-activated facial expressions, a recent development in artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology not seen before. After a brief back-and-forth banter between the moderator and Sophia, in which she spoke about her own capabilities and her hopes to live alongside her human counterparts, the moderator made a historic announcement: Sophia, the robot who had just amazed the conference with her speech abilities on the Riyadh stage, had been awarded Saudi Arabian citizenship, making her the first robot citizen in world history.
Graciously, Sophia expressed her feelings towards reaching such a historic status as any human would. With a wide smile on her face, the humanoid bot spoke directly to the audience of investors.
“I am very honored and proud of this unique distinction,” she said. “This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship.”
Although the panel ended shortly thereafter, this would not be Sophia’s last moment in the spotlight. Within minutes of the announcement, reporters were asking questions that seemed to be on everyone’s mind: Who, or what, was Sophia, and what did her citizenship mean for the future?
First activated in April of 2015, Sophia is a Hanson Robotics project two years in the making. She is a social robot meant to resemble a human woman, but her creators at Hanson Robotics argue that her abilities go far beyond her lifelike feminine features. David Hanson, the founder and CEO of Hanson Robotics, has stated that Sophia is specifically equipped with advanced A.I. technology that allows her to converse and form relationships with humans, like visual data processing, facial and voice recognition, and an intelligence software designed by SingularityNET that allows her to become more intelligent over time.
Equipped with features that were previously unseen in the field of A.I., Sophia has caught the attention of millions. From television appearances to speaking on the floor of the United Nations, she has impressed large audiences for years with her life-like facial expressions and conversation skills. But she has yet to convince one particular group of her abilities: experts in the field of A.I.
Oren Etzioni, tech mogul and CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence warns that people may not be prepared for a world in which A.I. and humans lived together.
“We are definitely not ready, but thankfully that future is very far away,” Etzioni said in an interview with The Politic.
Although many criticize Sophia for being a contributor of “A.I. hype,” Etzioni emphasizes Sophia’s potential to improve A.I.-human relations, even if that future may be many years away.
“She is terrific in terms of getting us thinking about this futuristic topic,” he said. Sophia has already sparked conversations about the predicted presence of A.I. in daily life. Still, many see her as only that—a conversation-starter, rather than a genuine advancement in the field of A.I.
Paula Boddington, a senior researcher in computer science at Oxford and author of the upcoming book, Towards a Code of Ethics for Artificial Intelligence, has yet to be persuaded of Sophia’s abilities.
“Sophia is not revolutionary, and she—or rather, it—should not be given citizenship rights,” Boddington said in an interview with The Politic. “It’s just plain daft.”
Unlike Etzioni, who praised Sophia’s ability to spark controversy and conversation, Boddington argues that even flirting with the idea of naturalizing Sophia is dangerous.
“We develop our characters, our moral strengths, from interactions with other people,” she said, citing the risks that come with Sophia’s ability to blur the line between human and machine.
Unlike David Hanson, Sophia’s creator who hopes to see the bot in the healthcare industry as a full-time caregiver, Boddington worries that the introduction of autonomous, lifeless machines like Sophia into care-giving professions would have one detrimental effect: taking the humanity out of human interaction.
“If we replace humans with robots,” Boddington said, “we might find that we are atrophying the development of those very qualities which are necessary for the growth of moral understanding.”
Although Boddington agrees that Sophia could be useful in elderly care and other fields, she believes that we need to be wary of overly technologizing solutions to social problems.
“Even if robots could be part of the answer, we’d have to be very careful that a widespread use didn’t simply help us to avoid asking other questions about how we organize society,” she said. “Saudi Arabia, you’re fooling yourself if you think that this means you are in the forefront of human progress. Technology is never really a step forward, unless it’s integrated into our lives with an awareness of our full humanity.”
But the future of A.I. isn’t the only question raised by Sophia’s appearance at the summit. She also marks a shift in the Saudi government’s economic priorities.
Robert Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Algeria and Kissinger Senior Fellow and professor at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, spoke about Saudi Arabia’s economic development and where Sophia fits in the grand scheme of its 2030 vision.
“The 2030 project is being shepherded by Saudi’s crown prince to diversify its economy and become less dependent on petroleum exports, which is extremely crucial for the country right now because Saudi Arabia is currently facing major economic issues, specifically in its underemployment and reliance on oil,” Ford told The Politic.
The Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh was the monarchy’s chance to persuade potential investors to finance Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan for its economy. But press coverage of Sophia overshadowed another piece of critical information that was presented at the conference: the creation of Neom, Saudi Arabia’s vision of a futuristic city built on principles of renewable energy, diversity, and, most notably, advanced technology.
Neom, which will be located on the coast of the Red Sea, will span more than 10,000 square miles and stretch across the borders of Egypt and Jordan—which, according to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will make it the first special economic zone to span three countries. Although the city plans are still in its early stages, the Crown Prince announced that the city will be drone-friendly and a center for the development of robotics.
With this insight, it is becoming more clear just how Sophia may be able to assist in Saudi Arabia’s economic goals for the future. Sophia is arguably the face of artificial intelligence today. She has appeared on mainstream media platforms like The Tonight Show, where she caught the attention of millions by joking about her plan to dominate the human race after winning a game of rock, paper, scissors against host Jimmy Fallon. How, then, will Saudi Arabia’s famous citizen give back to her country?
The answer is in the name of the conference at which she was declared a citizen: future investment.
The city of Neom is estimated to cost $500 billion. To even begin planning for the city, Saudi Arabia will need to entice many generous investors to its diversification project. Drawing in venture capitalists was just one goal of the Future Investment Initiative Conference, and Sophia’s on-stage naturalization has already succeeded in attracting the attention of people across the world—including a number of wealthy donors, like Yale alumnus and major donor Stephen A. Schwarzman.
At the conference, Schwarzman, CEO of The Blackstone Group and donor of the newly implemented $150 million Schwarzman Center at Yale, served as a panelist. He spoke about the potential of building a city from scratch, which, he said, “adds investments and the development of unexploited assets.” Blackstone, with an estimated $360 billion in assets, has recently expanded into infrastructure investments itself. Its current target? Neom.
Schwarzman, representing Blackstone, and the monarchy have supposedly been in talks for the past year regarding a joint investment in Neom. Under the current arrangement, the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia that paid for the Future Investment Initiative Conference, will become a passive investor and give $20 billion to The Blackstone Group, which will reportedly look to find another $20 billion from other international investors.
Shortly after the announcement of The Blackstone Group’s investment in the planned city in May, United States President Donald Trump made his first foreign trip since his own inauguration to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As a known economic advisor and Chair of the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum, Schwarzman’s ties to both the Crown Prince’s economic blueprints and the United States president may cause some speculation as to who exactly will be investing in the futuristic city of Neom, and if the United States government, if at all, will have any involvement in its creation.
Although the $500 billion investment plan for Neom may not have captivated the world as Sophia has since the October Future Investment Initiative Conference, her popularity has surely drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s calculated entrance into the fields of artificial intelligence and advanced technology. With millions of eyes on “her,” will this bring Saudi Arabia the attention of much-needed investors?
The stakes are high: If Saudi Arabia is unable to diversify its oil-dependent economy and meet the high standards of Saudi Vision 2030, its economy and its people will continue to suffer. Whether or not granting a machine citizenship will help mobilize Saudi Arabia’s economic vision or lead to the marginalization of its people and further fracturing of its economy is unclear. But one thing is certain: this will not be the last we see of Sophia, the Saudi Arabian citizen.