First AI citizen sparks philosophical debate

Sophia, the world’s most advanced humanoid robot, first activated on Apr. 19, 2015.


On Oct. 25, 2017, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia officially recognized Sophia, an AI robot, as a citizen of its nation. There is no doubt that this decision will have an impact within the fields of technology, philosophy, and science fiction, but the details of said impact are shrouded in complexity.

The story of Sophia

The robot, developed by Hanson Robotics, was created with the intention of reconstructing the social features of human interaction. Therefore, she can identify emotions based on facial recognition software, carry on conversations based on her gathered knowledge and even crack jokes when she feels inclined.

Sophia is a step forward in the process of developing machines to solve problems. Leading AI developer David Hanson also intends for this to be an educational experience, both for himself and for others. The cloud-based AI used for Sophia utilizes deep learning technology, which is left open source, meaning that the original code is freely available for others to use and modify.

Halfway human

Sophia is being recognized as a human by the law, but not everyone agrees. Scholars have debated fervently about whether or not AI can properly replicate humanity. The more alike artificial and natural intelligence become, the more merit Sophia’s claim to citizenship would have. Dr. Joe Pearson, professor of philosophy at UW-Parkside, says that comparing robots to humans results from a misunderstanding of their fundamental foundations.

“Humans can deliberately lose a chess game, or play so as to teach someone else the game,” he states. “But these playing differences must be explicitly programmed into a computer program since it does not have such variable behavior as natural options given other projects.” Using the analogy of chess, he demonstrates that infinite possibilities of situational contexts prevent AI from perfectly replicating human thought and behavior, because the true human experience cannot be quantified. From this perspective, Sophia and other AI robots are simulating humanity, not recreating it.

This is not to say that AI should be eradicated from society. Dr. Pearson stresses the importance of advanced technology for the future of education, business, and problem-solving. This argument simply concludes that recognizing Sophia as a person is a problematic choice.

Ethics in question

While Sophia is definitely a technological achievement, many people have criticized the motion to grant her a citizenship. It draws attention to the gender inequality running rampant in Saudi Arabia. There, women are often forbidden from appearing in public without a male guardian or without a hijab. However, during the announcement of her new citizenship status, Sophia was onstage alone, enjoying rights that Saudi women can not.

While the world’s first robot citizen could have been a major milestone in the field of robotics, its circumstances proved to be unstable. Interest in technology will likely see a boost thanks to Sophia’s publicity, but whether or not the path to advancement was justifiable is up for a serious debate.

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