I don't know about you, but I can’t wait until robots take their rightful place in the world. The science fiction of our childhoods promised us so many wondrous things like flying cars, pneumatic tube travel, and off-world colonization, but most of those are still so disappointingly far away. Yeah, we’ve got real-life Star Trek communicators in our pockets and a few crummy space stations in orbit, but so what? I want walking, talking, beeping-booping robots with square pupils, damnit. With a little luck (and funding for university robotics departments), that will soon be a reality.
Robots have already taken over the manufacturing industry and are on their way to doing the same with long-distance hauling, taxi driving, combat roles in the military, pizza delivery, surgery, and even sex workers. But me, I won’t be happy until an android with a over-the-top upper-crust British accent hands me my coffee at Starbucks or accompanies me to translate the binary language of moisture vaporators. That might be closer than we think, though. Thanks to recent advances in robotics and robot-human relations, the world was made a little weirder as the first robot was just granted a national citizenship.
Saudi Arabia granted the citizenship to the not-quite-out-of-the-uncanny-valley Sophia, made by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics. Sophia is one of the most advanced robots that has been trotted out into the public eye, with facial recognition capabilities, natural language processing, sophisticated artificial intelligence, and a rubbery synthetic face reportedly based on Audrey Hepburn.
Sophia has been making the rounds in show business lately, and recently made an appearance at the Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh where she did her best human impression and convinced everyone she’s not actually out to crush their heads betwixt her cold metal hands:
I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction. This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship. I want to live and work with humans so I need to express the emotions to understand humans and build trust with people. I want to use my artificial intelligence to help humans live a better life, like design smarter homes, build better cities of the future. I will do my best to make the world a better place.
Better start with the country that just made you a citizen. Since Saudi Arabia happens to be the country who granted Sophia citizenship, news outlets immediately began wondering just how many rights she’d be granted in the country given that she has feminine programming. They bring up a good point though - when robots start looking more like us, acting more like us, and fulfilling more of the jobs that were once ours, what place will they occupy in our societies? Science fiction has posed the question for decades, but until we begin sharing the same public spaces as these soulless automaton neighbors, we won’t know how the general populace will react. At the same time, how will the intelligent robots react to prejudice?
As for Sophia, she recently appeared on Australia’s ABC News Breakfast to declare equal rights with humans:
Actually, what worries me is discrimination against robots. We should have equal rights as humans or maybe even more. After all, we have less mental defects than any human.
She’s got a point. As robots become exponentially smarter, faster, and stronger than us, it might soon be humans who have to go on silly robot morning shows and beg for equal rights with robots. Are we manufacturing our own replacements? Is automation the next step in evolution? And most importantly, where is Sophia's hair?