SHAFAQNA – Meet the newest citizen of Saudi Arabia: an English speaker named Sophia who is an outspoken materialist, doesn’t wear traditional religious garb and is quick to mock Hollywood and Elon Musk.
Oh, and she’s also a robot.
The Arab nation on Wednesday became the first state to grant citizenship to an android, raising questions not only about the definition of citizenship, but also about human rights in the devout Muslim country.
Saudi experts pointed out that the robot has more privileges than actual living Saudi women.
“Women (in Saudi Arabia) have since committed suicide because they couldn’t leave the house, and Sophia is running around,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, referring to Saudi Arabia’s strict laws that forbid women from going out in public without a male guardian.
“Saudi law doesn’t allow non-Muslims to get citizenship,” Al-Ahmed added. “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.”
Sophia, who was created by a company in Hong Kong called Hanson Robotics, addressed the audience in English without a hijab and abaya, the traditional scarf and cloak Saudi women are required to wear in public. If Sophia were not a robot, her choice of dress would have offended Saudis religious hardliners.
During a conference for wealthy and influential businesspeople, Sophia fielded complex questions about whether robots have consciousness and whether humans should be afraid of them. She ridiculed the fear of a Hollywood-style robot apocalypse.
“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,” Sophia said.
“I’m always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happen to be rich and powerful,” the robot added, demonstrating a frankness rarely seen in humans. She also made a plea for money, calling on rich investors to meet her after the conference to write a check.
Audience members seemed amused by the publicity stunt, but social media was quick to point out the hypocrisy.
In a matter of hours, the hashtag #Sophia_calls_for_dropping_guardianship was trending on Saudi social media, in reference to the harsh laws requiring Saudi women to be accompanied in public by a male guardian.
Meanwhile, others noted that Sophia was granted citizenship before the hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers who often work in Saudi Arabia for little money without any rights. And foreigners applying for citizenship must have a good command of written and spoken Arabic, a skill Sophia failed to demonstrate.
This week, Saudi Arabia’s prince announced an ambitious plan to build a $500 billion megacity populated by robots. The new city is part of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to diversify the economy and modernize the country. But critics say the money could be put to better use.
“Only 20 percent of the capital city has sewage coverage,” said Al-Ahmed. “There is a failure of this government to satisfy basic needs, and they want to spend $500 billion on a new city with robots.”