An AI professor explains: three concerns about granting citizenship to robot Sophia


Citizen Sophia.
Flickr/AI for GOOD Global Summit, CC BY

I was surprised to hear that a robot named Sophia was granted citizenship by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The announcement last week 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 machine. As a professor who works daily on making AI and autonomous systems more trustworthy, I don’t believe human society is ready yet for citizen robots.


Read more: How to make robots that we can trust


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

Robot Sophia is officially a citizen of Saudi Arabia.

Who is 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.

Sophia is reminiscent of “Johnny 5”, the first robot to become a US citizen in the 1986 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?

Risk to citizenship

Citizenship – in my opinion, the most honourable status a country grants for its people – is facing an existential risk.

As a researcher who advocates for designing autonomous systems that are trustworthy, I know the technology is not ready yet.

We have many challenges that we need to overcome before we can truly trust these systems. 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.

Here are three reasons I think it is a premature decision to grant Sophia citizenship.

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