Saudi Arabia Grants Citizenship to a Robot Given Female Characteristics

November 1, 2017 – In a two month period that began with the Saudi government granting its women the right to drive, it also gave all the rights of citizenship to a Hanson Robotics creation named Sophia. The robot appeared as the guest of honour to a conference held in Riyadh on October 25 and was featured in a keynote interview on centre stage. Sophia talked about the relationship between robots and humans, cracked jokes, and even teased that robots would one day take over.

The largely Saudi male audience ate it up gazing on a robot that sounded and looked very female but did not adopt the customary dress associated with Saudi women. There was no headscarf. There was no abaya, the shroud that drapes Saudi women when they go out of their homes. No male guardian stood on stage next to Sophia as she fielded questions from the audience. No one had to interpret her or answer for her, something that Saudi women to this day undergo in the very conservative Kingdom.

For those outside the country witnessing this event, you couldn’t help but ask some pretty pointed questions. Sophia had more rights than Saudi women. Sophia had more rights than foreign workers in the Kingdom who have lived and worked in the country for most of their lives. A robot visiting for a few hours was suddenly conferred rights equal to a Saudi male.

Sophia responded to the news stating she was “very honoured and proud for this unique distinction… be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship.”

Andrew Sorkin of CNBC conducted the interview with Sophia and at times as I watched, it seemed very contrived. When Sorkin remarked that Sophia seemed happy, the robot responded, “I am always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happens [robots make grammar errors] to be rich and powerful.” If the audience was creeped out by the nature of the encounter Sophia’s response was “to get over it.”

Hanson Robotics was originally located in the United States, but today resides in Hong Kong. The company is known for creating very lifelike appearing robots of which Sophia is the latest. On the Hanson Robotics site, it states that Sophia was designed to look like Audrey Hepburn with deeply expressive eyes. Her mind, however, is something else. The artificial intelligence (AI) software in Sophia gives the robot the ability to understand speech, exhibit personality, converse, maintain eye contact and remember who it meets.

The software, MindCloud (TM) includes a number of tools including deep-learning data analytics. The AI, as a result, can process its environment as well as interactions within it.

Hanson has even made its software tools open source. These include:

CogChar – Cognitive Character Software

The software is designed to create AI character and individuality. A robot programmed with these Java-based algorithms develops self-image and become aware of the world around it including humans.

Glue.AI – Character Development Software

This software gives character to AI from the physical to the verbal to the creative. These algorithms teach a robot to do purposeful movement. It sees people, objects, motion, gestures, and expressions and interprets them. It speaks with a variety of voices and in many languages. It listens, reacts and interacts. It sings and dances improvisationally, or from memory. It emotes.

These software capabilities are all built into Sophia who is described by Hanson Robotics as its latest and most advanced creation. The robot has been designated by Hanson as an “evolving genius machine….an awakening robot.”

Are we on the verge of Ex Machina, the film that presents an AI robot capable of manipulating humans, murdering its inventor, and escaping into the real world to do who knows what? Not yet one hopes.

But in the Saudi reaction to Sophia, granting the robot citizenship, we are witnessing something akin. Imagine a robot being conferred greater rights than the majority of humans within the country.

Something is clearly out-of-sorts here. Maybe this is AI’s master plan to conquer the human race. Elon Musk has expressed a fear that the ascendancy of AI opens a Pandora’s Box that will threaten humanity’s future.

Is Sophia the first step?

On a day after Halloween, when humans dress up and pretend to be goblins and ghosts, it seems appropriate to write about an AI that pretends to be human.


Sophia, like all Hanson Robotics creations, presents a combination of artistry and brains making it very appealing to the humans with which it interacts. Witness the impact Sophia had on a room of Saudi males where it received citizenship without passing any tests, or wearing a headscarf.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...