Artificial Rights

Samantha Davis questions how a robot seems to have been given more rights than the real women of Saudi Arabia.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a term that can cause excitement in some, and strike fear into the hearts of others. However, with the current developments in the technology industry, and the future we’re clearly heading towards, we cannot deny that AI is a rapidly growing phenomenon. This has been made especially clear after the emergence and popularity of Sophia.

Described as a ‘social humanoid robot’, Sophia was developed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics and was activated on April 19 2015. Able to display 62 facial expressions, convey human feelings, and have a sense of humour, Sophia’s design is also said to have been modelled after Audrey Hepburn.

Sophia quickly became mainstream news when in October 2017 she was granted official Saudi Arabian citizenship, making her the first ever robot with a nationality. However, this did not come without controversy and, for me personally, crosses the line of where I am comfortable with AI development going.

Although I find AI fascinating, I am a firm believer that it can be dangerous when power dynamics are brought into play. By granting Sophia citizenship, she is being allowed access to freedoms that women in Saudi Arabia do not have. This calls into question Saudi Arabia’s human rights records, which have been opened to critiques after denying women equal rights, yet handing them to a robot.

Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi analyst and political activist, explains how “women have since committed suicide because they couldn’t leave the house, and Sophia is running around” travelling the globe and speaking at some of the most important and influential events. Her independence is something which should not be taken for granted as it is also still forbidden under Saudi law for women to make major decisions without the permission of a male guardian. Al-Ahmed also comments upon the fact that Sophia is not made to wear a hijab, something that is required of women under the dress code of the Islamic law. He concludes by stating that ‘if she applied for citizenship as a human she wouldn’t get it’.

Gaining citizenship in Saudi Arabia is not something that is easily obtained. As stated by Bloomberg Technology, it is rarely granted to immigrant workers (who make up around a third of Saudi Arabia’s population) even to those whose families have been working in the country for generations. It is also common for citizenship to be denied to the children of Saudi Arabian women whose fathers are foreign.

The simple fact that human-generated technology is merely gifted a citizenship over flesh and bone human beings, who have worked and lived in their country for decades, proves that the freedoms given to AIs have gone too far.

Sofia claims that her main aim is “to use my artificial intelligence to help humans live a better life” and to “do [her] best to make the world a better place”. However, her creation results in greater inequality created between the rights and freedoms of women and this gives her very existence a haunting sense of irony.