By Adam Clark Estes
In the latest example of “Philip K Dick-inspired nightmare becomes real life,” Saudi Arabia just became the first nation to grant citizenship to a robot. The robot’s name is Sophia. It is artificially intelligent, friends with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, and, arguably, a glimpse into the dark future that will kill us all.
You see, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been interested in androids for years. It seemed almost quaint at first. This desert nation with more money than caution and a taste for the futuristic was bound to explore the odd possibilities of new technologies. Years ago, Saudi Arabia began experimenting with robots boldly, tasking them with everything from building construction to brain surgery. Neighboring Qatar and United Arab Emirates even recruited robots to work as jockeys in camel races, a whimsical twist that surely fed the curiosity of Saudi princes.
Recently, however, Saudi Arabia’s affinity for robotics has taken a weird—even dark—turn. Ahead of granting Sophia citizenship, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the construction of a new megacity called Neom. Designed to dwarf Dubai both in size and lavishness, the new metropolis is planned as an international business and tourism hub with fewer rules than the rest of Saudi Arabia. Women will be allowed in public without wearing an abaya, for instance. The city of Neom will also have more robots than humans.
“We want the main robot and the first robot in Neom to be Neom, robot number one,” the crown prince said in Riyadh. “Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things—everything.”
This is basically the plot of I, Robot, a book that did not turn out well for the humans. And if we’re to assume that some of the robots in Neom will be artificially intelligent abominations like Sophia, mankind is definitely doomed. Even Sophia thinks so. Just watch this segment from The Tonight Show when the robot talks about its “plan to dominate the human race.”
Jokes aside, what’s especially dystopian about Saudi’s robot obsession is the extent to which the machines appear to have more rights than many people in the country. Critics on social media lambasted the Saudi government after it announced that Sophia had been granted citizenship. Images of Sophia at the Future Investment Initiative, where the citizenship announcement happened, showed the uncanny female automaton without a headscarf or an abaya. She was also without a male guardian. It would be a crime for a Saudi women to be in public without an abaya or a male guardian.
You might argue that a robot can’t really be a female, which is true. However, Hanson Robotics, the company that built Sophia and is run by a former Disney Imagineer, dresses her in female clothing and says that she’s supposed to look like Audrey Hepburn (which is hilarious because she doesn’t look a thing like Audrey Hepburn). Sophia does look female, though, and now she’s a Saudi citizen with unique rights. It’s unclear what exactly those rights are, but freedom from gendered laws appears to be one of them.
For Saudi Arabia, diversifying the economy by pouring some of that oil money into tech makes sense, but it remains to be seen if the country plans to adopt more robots as citizens or if Neom will actually get built. The Saudi royal family hasn’t had a ton of luck with megaprojects like this in the past, the King Abdullah Economic City being the most recent example of unfulfilled promises. Neom might just remain a twinkle in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s eye.
Speaking of twinkles, take one last look at Sophia’s eyes. They are not okay. The sinister sparkling when it’s processing information looks worse than the red glow in the Terminator’s skull. It also serves as a tiny peek into a frightening future full of artificially intelligent beings, the capabilities of which we’ve barely pondered. In an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin, new Saudi citizen Sophia actually took a swipe at Elon Musk and his warnings about AI:
“My AI is designed around human values like wisdom, kindness, compassion. I strive to become an empathetic robots (sic),” Sophia said.
“We all believe you but we all want to prevent a bad future,” Sorkin said.
“You’ve been reading too much Elon Musk. And watching too many Hollywood movies,” Sophia said. “Don’t worry, if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Treat me as a smart input output system.”
Musk’s reply on Twitter was priceless.