Citizenship and AI in Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the first nation in the world to grant citizenship to a robot. In October 2017, Sophia, a humanoid robot developed by Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics, was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the first nation in the world to grant citizenship to a robot, likewise Sophia being the first robot to receive citizenship of a country. She can be seen one of the few robots to have an AI really close to that of humans. Sophia has been designed to learn and adapt to human behavior and work with humans, and has been interviewed around the world. According to her owner, she is a Social Robot. Her other features include her unique ability to detect emotions through eye contact while interacting with humans which will make communication smooth. Her conversation level is quite impressive as Sophia can be seen to sometimes crack jokes. However, several responses have seen this action as a joke, especially in light of the human rights records of Saudi Arabia. Human rights in Saudi Arabia are intended to be based on the Hanbali Islamic religious laws under absolute rule of the Saudi royal family. They uphold the Sharia Law where crimes like robbery and adultery receive corporal punishments such as amputation and flogging respectively. There have been responses online from irate users who find the fact that Saudi Arabia gives citizenship to a robot while several of its laws are very much against women.  There were also criticisms on the fact that she was not wearing an abaya and appeared to be unaccompanied by a male guardian, two illegal acts for a woman in the country. Others pointed out that the fact that she didn’t get in trouble means that this robotic woman has more rights that an actual woman in Saudi Arabia. As a citizen of Saudi Arabia, will Sophia have the same rights as humans? Would she be allowed to vote? Can she get married? Would it be murder to turn her off or erase her memory? It is worthy of note that this is mostly a publicity stunt but it is an opportunity to understand what citizenship means.


Citizenship in terms of Rights

Citizenship in terms of rights refers to the relationship between fundamental human rights and being a citizen of a country. In the case of a robot being granted citizenship, lots of people have viewed this issue in terms of human rights. When a person is granted citizenship of a country, it automatically makes that person eligible for various infrastructure and health care facilities.  However, being a citizen is a unique class because it over looks nationality, race, income, and gender, while at least it can in theory, and it is supposed to guarantee individuals certain rights. This is ultimately a weak way to view citizenship, since people that don’t hold citizenship hold right even in a foreign land. If I, as a foreigner, visit Japan, this doesn’t mean that my basic fundamental human rights such as right to life, food and expression, will be trampled upon at will and I am meant to do nothing about it.





Citizenship in terms of Responsibilities

Citizenship as we know it originated in ancient Greece. Although, there is still some disagreement about when the relation of citizenship began, many see its origin as a reaction to the fear of slavery, while others see it as primarily a modern phenomenon dating back only a few hundred years. In Roman times, citizenship began to take on more of the character of a relationship based on law, with less political participation than in ancient Greece but a widening sphere of who was considered to be a citizen. A better way of defining Citizenship mostly applies to the right to vote. However, this does not apply to Saudi Arabia. This is a country that practices the Royal system of leadership. Saudi Arabia has been ruled since its foundation by the Al-Saud dynasty. King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended the throne in January 2015 following the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah. He was Abdullah's crown prince and had taken on some of the ailing king's responsibilities. As such, if we were to define citizenship by our rights/responsibilities to votes, we could say that Saudi Arabia does not have citizens. In this sense, no one in Saudi Arabia holds citizenship. Since Saudi Arabia holds no election, neither man nor woman can vote in elections.



Citizenship in terms of Belonging

In Adrienne Clarkson’s (former governor general of Canada) book BELONGING: THE PARADOX OF CITIZENSHIP she offers a more comprehensive view of citizen that includes belonging as an idea. In her book, Clarkson says,


"We know that we can be citizens who are not related to each other by blood, religion, or even past history. What we believe is that we can belong to a country that has welcomed us and that fortunately has a very strong infrastructure of parliamentary democracy, common and civil law, two official languages, and an Aboriginal foundation. We start in this country not with a political status quo from which an idea of ‘citizen' devolves, but with an idea of citizen from which a nation evolves. This idea starts always with the personal question ‘How do I belong?' That is our revolutionary act: for the Greeks, if it doesn't exist on the ground, then it doesn't exist; for us, if it doesn't exist in the imagination, it can't exist."


In her book, she explains the concept of belonging. You belong to a country based on how the people there make you feel. Being a Chinese-born Canadian, she was not despised or rejected. By allowing others the right to healthy lives and peaceful coexistence regardless of the national status given to them, citizenship can be seen as just a status. While people in Saudi Arabia might not be able to vote in direct elections, they still belong to a community.






Globalization, Automation and AI presents a lot of complicated questions

While the advancements in Artificial Intelligence technology are definitely to be applauded, there are still lots of question that require answers. Firstly, on a philosophical level, is Sophia even “female”? By scientific definition, a woman possesses female reproductive organs including some other peculiar characteristics. If I name my guitar Belinda does that make her a woman? The answer to this is obviously no. While we may attribute female names or references to an object/robot, it still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of being referred to as a full woman. Then why is a robot with female features different?


What does it means to be a citizen of the world? Being a global citizen is referred to as a person who identifies with being part of an emerging world community and whose actions contribute to building this community's values and practices. In other words, this person declares the world as his country first and foremost with the ultimate aim to always be good. I see Sophia as an agent of positive change and a force to unify the world. I am ultimately hopeful because the challenges of Globalization, Automation and AI give us the opportunity to understand what it truly means to be human.

Matthew Griffin