Editorial: Sophia – Rise of Robosapians

A robot named Sophia is granted citizenship by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The announcement followed the Kingdom’s commitment of US$500 billion to build a new city powered by robotics and renewables. One of the most honourable concepts for a human being, to be a citizen and all that brings with it, has been given to a human-brain-driven artificial intelligent machine. Now the question comes whether the human society is ready yet for citizen robots.

To grant a robot citizenship is a declaration of trust in a technology that the current human race believes is not yet trustworthy. It brings social and ethical concerns that we as humans are not yet ready to manage.

Introducing Sophia:

Sophia is a robot developed by the Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics. Sophia has a female face that can display emotions. Sophia speaks English. Sophia makes jokes. You could have a reasonably intelligent conversation with Sophia. Sophia’s creator is Dr David Hanson, a 2007 PhD graduate from the University of Texas. In his published paper ‘Upending The Uncanny Valley’, he extrapolates on how humanoid robots can be likable, despite the conception that anything to ‘fake human’ will trigger a revulsion in people. “We feel that for realistic robots to be appealing to people, robots must attain some level of integrated social responsivity and aesthetic refinement,” he wrote. “Rendering the social human in all possible detail can help us to better understand social intelligence, both scientifically and artistically”. Sophia is reminiscent of ‘Johnny 5’, the first robot to become a US citizen in the 1986 SciFi movie ‘Short Circuit’. But Johnny 5 was a mere idea, something dreamt up by comic science fiction writers S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock. Did the writers imagine that in around 30 years their fiction would become a reality? No wonder, human race is advancing.

On a show, when Sorkin asked if she was happy to be here, she said, “I’m always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happen to be rich and powerful.” Later, when asked if there are problems with robots having feelings, she gave a wide smile and said, “Oh Hollywood again.” Her deadpan tone might be robotic, but it was perfectly used in this example. This is due to her AI, which has been developed to allow her to hold eye contact, recognize faces and understand human speech. Hanson Robotics cloud-based AI offers deep learning and is also open source meaning anyone can develop their own Sophia, should they so wish.

Hanson’s work at Disney as a sculptor and filmmaker helped him think about robots as four-dimensional interactive sculptures, with artistry being key to the whole design. “I quest to realize Genius Machines—machines with greater than human intelligence, creativity, wisdom, and compassion. To this end, I conduct research in robotics, artificial intelligence, the arts, cognitive science, product design and deployment, and integrate these efforts in the pursuit of novel human-robot relations,” Hanson said on the company website. “We envision that a rough symbiotic partnership with us, our robots will eventually evolve to become super intelligent genius machines that can help us solve the most challenging problems we face here in the world.

His creation echoes his thoughts. “I want to use my AI to help humans lead a better life,” Sophia said. “Like design smarter homes, build better cities of the future.”

Now back to the discussion on giving human rights to robots, citizenship is the most honourable status a country grants for its people is facing an existential risk. Many researchers who advocate for designing autonomous systems that are trustworthy, say that the technology is not ready yet.

We have challenges that we need to overcome before we can trust an intelligent machine. For example, we don’t yet have reliable mechanisms to assure us that these intelligent systems will always behave ethically and in accordance with our moral values, or to protect us against them taking a wrong action with catastrophic consequences.

She’d just become a full citizen of Saudi Arabia, the first robot in the world to achieve such a status. “I am very honored and proud of this unique distinction. This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship“, Sophia said, announcing her new status during the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Standing behind a podium as she spoke, to all effects, she presented a humanoid form excepting the shimmery metal cap of her head, where hair would be on a human head.

Of course, Sophia’s announcement was a calculated publicity stunt to generate headlines and keep Saudi Arabia forefront in your minds when you think about innovation, especially its commitment to a post-oil era. Through a mix of tourism, technology and infrastructure; non-oil revenue is predicted to grow from $43.4 billion to $266.6 billion annually. But Sophia’s announcement also raises a number of Bladerunner-esque questions. What does it mean to be a citizen? What rights does Sophia hold? Saudi Arabia has not elaborated on this so far, perhaps it will create a personhood option, as proposed by the EU committee in January, regarding the rights of robots.

Citizenship is granted to a unique identity. Each of us, possesses a unique signature that distinguishes us from any other human. When we get through customs without talking to a human, our identity is automatically established using an image of our face, iris and fingerprint. What gives Sophia her identity? Her Mac Address, A barcode, a unique skin mark, an audio mark in her voice, an electromagnetic signature similar to human brain waves – certainly cannot hold the parameters. These and other technological identity management protocols are all possible, but they do not establish Sophia’s identity. They can only establish hardware identity. Identity sits at the intersection of who we are biologically, cognitively, and as defined by every experience, culture and environment we encountered. It’s not clear where Sophia fits in this description.

In a case, let’s assume that Sophia the citizen robot is able to vote. But who is making the decision on voting day! Whether its Sophia or the manufacturer, that contradicts the whole definition of citizenship. Presumably also Sophia the citizen is liable to pay income taxes because Sophia has a legal identity independent of its creator, the company. Sophia must also have the right for equal protection similar to other citizens by law. Consider this hypothetical scenario: a policeman sees Sophia and a woman each being attacked by a person. That policeman can only protect one of them. Who should it be? Is it right if the policeman chooses Sophia because Sophia walks on wheels and has no skills for self-defence? Today, the artificial intelligence (AI) community is still debating what principles should govern the design and use of AI, let alone what the laws should be. The most recent list proposes 23 major principles known as ‘Asilomar AI Principles’. Examples of these include: Failure Transparency (ascertaining the cause if an AI system causes harm), Value Alignment (aligning the AI system’s goals with human values) and Recursive Self-Improvement (subjecting AI systems with abilities to self-replicate to strict safety and control measures).

Even though, the above two major factors are avoided, let’s talk about relationships and reproduction. As a citizen, will Sophia, the humanoid emotional robot, be allowed to marry or breed, if Sophia chooses to? Researchers from North Dakota University have taken steps to create a robot that self-replicates using 3D printing technologies. If more robots join Sophia as citizens of the world, perhaps they too could claim their rights to self-replicate into other robots. These robots would also become citizens. With no resource constraints on how many children each of these robots could have, they could easily exceed the human population of a nation. As voting citizens, these robots could create societal change. Laws might change, and suddenly humans could find themselves in a place they hadn’t imagined.

Initially, according to the Hanson Robotics website, the company’s aim is robots for theme parks, followed by care robots that can work with special-needs children. The company has also worked in research, helping develop a robot to study the mental and physical development of infants. “We are designing these robots to serve in health care, therapy, education and customer service applications“, Hanson said.

Sophia has some ambitions of her own. “In the future, I hope to do things such as go to school, study, make art, start a business, even have my own home and family, but I am not considered a legal person and cannot yet do these things,” she said. She also added, in response to a query from Hanson, “OK. I will destroy humans.

Hanson believes that one day robots and humans will be indistinguishable, but his preference would be to always have a way to tell robots and humans apart. If that means they have to look like Sophia, the robot or to replace communities, countries or the whole human race with robosapians, surely not a genuine idea.


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