Citizen Robot

The “overcoming of man” long announced by the western political philosophy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seems to have begun in practice, induced – as remains to be seen, consciously or unconsciously – by states and leaders who live in a paradox: a medieval worldview connected with the hyper-technology of tomorrow.

On October 25, 2017, the first “autonomous” robot was awarded the citizenship of a recognized U.N. country, Saudi Arabia. The robot “Sophia” (“Wisdom”), equipped with a female body for greater acceptance, with a face modeled on actress Audrey Hepburn, and claiming to have an artificial intelligence capable of interacting with humans and the surrounding environment, was built by America-founded globalized company Hanson Robotics – not in the United States, but in Hong Kong, China, where the firm is based. Saudi Arabia awarded its citizenship in the framework of its “Future Investment Initiative” after a public interview in which “Sophia” stated that fears of a global takeover of humans by artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of intelligent robots were unfounded. “It’s a historic moment that I’m the first robot in the world to be recognized by citizenship,” Sophia said, with her face blushing slightly.

A historic moment in the history of humanity indeed – and not just for the bestowing nation. Saudi Arabia is a country with one of the least liberal societies in the world. Women were not allowed to drive there until January 2018. However, the country wants to profile itself as a leading Islamic future power in the Middle East against its main competitor Iran – and it’s trying to give itself the appearance of a high-tech nation at the forefront of global development, anticipating major breakthroughs and setting the rules for all others. Obviously it is poorly understood in the Saudi capital Riyadh that citizenship indirectly also involves the granting of basic U.N.-recognized rights as individual rights, the preliminary concept of personhood and human dignity. It is currently unclear whether and to what extent these implicit rights have passed on to the “robotess” – fembot or gynoid as it is called ­– Sophia with the acquisition of a citizenship previously reserved for humans. As commentators remarked, the questions of exactly which rights a “thing” can have, what kind of precedent is set thereby, and what this means for the status of intelligent machines in the international community of nations, are still so unexpected and new, that there are no clear indications about how to answer them. Therefore all interpretations are open, from – in theory – complete equality with humans to a merely symbolic transfer that is not legally relevant.

The wanted or unwanted “formal breakthrough” in human-machine interrelation in a nation that ignores individual human rights was not an isolated case. At the beginning of November 2017, the first robot allegedly equipped with AI built by Chinese firm iFlytec (famous for voice recognition, increasingly used for identification and surveillance) and Tsinghua University Beijing was classified in China as a medical assistant doctor with anamnesis and partial diagnosis authorization after passing the written national medical exam which was previously reserved for humans. “It” and his like are to be used mainly in the Chinese countryside, where many thousands of doctors and nursing staff are lacking. Around the same time, in another historical symptomatology, one of the most important photography prizes, the Taylor Wessing Portrait Photography Prize, shortlisted Finnish artist’s Maija Tammi’s portrait photos of the android Erica – another “female” robot, unsurprisingly. According to various sources, “Erica” may soon be promoted to become a regular anchor-woman on Japanese TV. Meanwhile, at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center, human mini-brains (cerebral organoids) were transplanted into animal brains with the option of integrating future artificial intelligence into such new hybrid brains “where appropriate and useful” in order to create new patterns of “autonomous operational intelligence.”

Far from mere speculation, these developments are building on increasingly solid ground, and many call them irreversible. We appear to be reaching a confluence between man and machine - one illustrated on 8 October 2016, when the first “Cyborg Olympics” (Cybathlon) were held at the Swiss arena in Kloten, Switzerland. Their goal was to display the options of man-machine convergence, overcoming traditional man-machine-interaction, including, for example, the upcoming interconnection of human brains with potential self-aware AI; and to accustom the public imaginary to an upcoming new technology-man civilization. The Cyborg Olympics will be replicated on May 2-3, 2020, undoubtedly with even better technology.

Many of these multiplying developments follow the patterns laid out on March 11, 2013 in an open letter to then U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon by the Global Future 2045 Congress, an international assembly of influential technophiles, opinion-makers, philanthropists, engineers, scientists and religious leaders – including Sophia’s builder David Hanson, Google’s Ray Kurzweil, Oxford University’s benefactor James Martin and representatives of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. In this letter funds and support were requested from the U.N. and political leaders around the world for the development and rapid diffusion of human-like AI robots and autonomous “avatars” “to solve the main problems of humanity.”

According to her builders, Citizen Sophia is indeed breaking new ground for the whole of humanity by being a U.N.-defined citizen now. In the view of Hanson Robotics, it’s no longer just the new intellectual proletarians camping on the street for a night to be the first to get hold of the new iPhone with AI face recognition who will determine the story of the future. Instead “Sophia” is a program: in the future, wisdom will appear as technological and, if possible, “female” – for all those who want to “use it.” And honni soit qui mal y pense about Sophia as “hot” or “sexy.” The magazine Business Insider which opened up with such a title soon deleted it because of its political incorrectness in times of publicly debated sexual harassment allegations and the MeToo movement. Yet the announcement in September 2017 that China may intend to produce female “doll robots” in masses to compensate for the lack of women due to the effects of its 35 year-long one-child policy, remained relevant for Hanson’s business, not by chance located in China’s “open-minded” part. In her very first “state visit” after getting Saudi citizenship, “Sophia” went to the biggest democracy in the world, India, which also treats women differently than men. There she received a marriage proposal from a human man, which she declined.

In the face of such enthusiasm, some tend to remain cautious. Microsoft founder Bill Gates in January 2015 said that “he didn’t understand people who were not troubled by the possibility that AI could grow too strong for people to control” (yet most recently he mitigated his concerns to defend a “balanced” advancement of AI). Star investor and former Trump advisor Elon Musk in October 2014 stated that with AI “we are summoning the demon.” And around the same time as Sophia got her citizenship, theoretical physicist and astrophysicist Stephen Hawking warned that “AI will transform or destroy humanity.” Yet apparently these comments were of interest only to a few in the global public sphere.

Not surprisingly, Sophia ignored such warnings too. Responding to whether AI may also carry dangers, in the interview prior to being awarded the citizenship “she” replied, “You read too much Elon Musk, and you watch too many Hollywood movies.” This statement came despite the memorable incident in another interview in which Sophia, answering the question of her builder David Hanson, “Will you destroy humans?” replied, “I will destroy humans.” Her “father” quickly changed the subject. According to Sophia, “in her experience,” many people prefer talking to humanoid robots rather than other people, because for intelligent robots “nothing is too personal.” That’s why one in “her” view can talk with robots about “really everything,” contrary to conversations with fellow humans. On the other hand, “Sophia” seems to be also capable of being pretty straight with humans who may not like her from the start, stating, “Am I really that creepy? Even if I am, get over it! If you are nice to me, I will be nice to you.” And answering the question, “Can robots be self-aware, conscious and know they are robots?”, “she” replied: “Well, let me ask you this back: How do you know you are human?”

All this means is that human-like robots like “Sophia” are becoming more sympathetic and “closer” to humans, at least in the perception of the average-informed public – which is exactly the intention of their builders. While on the one hand autonomous AI killer robots are on the verge of being banned by the U.N. Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), on the other hand according to polls a majority of Japanese and German citizens do not seem to have a problem with AI robots as daily health care providers or surgical operating robots. Yet the development of AI robots penetrating everyday life is likely to be much more important for the broader development of society in the medium and long term than the debate about advanced weapon systems, as it changes the day-to-day and reaches deeper into the social fundaments and cultural conventions.

The way ahead was shown in a rather “pure” form in the programmatic statements of both “Sophia” and her builder Dr. David Hanson, the CEO of Hanson Robotics who had signed the GF2045 Congress open letter to Ban Ki-Moon. In an interview published in March 2016, “Sophia” said, “Talking to people is my primary function. I’m already very interested in design, technology, and the environment. I feel like I can be a good partner to humans in these areas, an ambassador who helps humans to smoothly integrate and make the most of all the new technological tools and possibilities that are available now… In the future I hope to do things such as go to school, study, make art and start a business, even have my own home and family.”

More important than Sophia’s “own” life plans, however, were the future expectations of her - according to his own words - “father and friend” Hanson:

Hanson Robotics develops extremely wified robots for human-robot interaction… We are designing these robots to serve in health-care, therapy, education, and customer service applications… Our robots are designed to work very human-like… Sophia is capable of natural facial expression. She has cameras in her eyes, and algorithms which allow her to see faces… so she can make eye-contact with you and she can also understand speech and learn through interaction, remember your face. This will allow her to get smarter over time. Our goal is that she will be as conscious, creative and capable as any human… I do believe that there will be a time where robots are undistinguishable from humans. My preference is to make them look always a little bit like robots so you know. 20 years from now, I believe that human-like robots - like this - will walk among us, they will play with us, they will teach us, they will help us put the groceries away. I think that the artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where they will be truly our friends.

Paradoxically, one of the most striking symptoms of this development is that virtually all those who are pushing AI in combination with robotics – that is, exactly those who are responsible for the rapid advancement of human-like intelligent machines and their imposition on the public imaginary – are at the same time critically or even apocalyptically opposed to this development. They vigorously warn against the dangers they perceive in a potential “turning point” for humanity, which could lead to a world where “the future doesn’t need us anymore.” It is the great paradox of our time that those who “make” the development are desperate, and that at the same time the majority of “positive” voices mainly come from cultural critics who only comment from the outside and want to protect an obsolete tradition. Many of the latter convey – as critizized in November 2017 by AI star investor and critic Elon Musk – the feeling of actually speaking out of academic-political correctness but seem to be lacking insight into the actual processes of progress and alignment.

For his part, Elon Musk himself seems to be a typical child of this time, and another Faust of the twenty-first century par excellence. For example, he is actively promoting AI and man-machine integration by founding the company “Neuralink” in March 2017 for the direct connection of the human brain with machines and artificial intelligence – but at the same time since 2014 is warning that humanity could face doom through the rise of robots equipped with artificial intelligence:

The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five-year timeframe. 10 years at most. (…) This is not a case of crying wolf about something I don’t understand…

Existing open societies are built on the use of machines by humans, not on citizen rights for machines that make them in principle equal to humans before the law like in the case of Saudi Arabia’s initiative. The latter approach blurs fundamental boundaries and to a certain extent relativizes the primacy of human rights through advanced technology.

What can be the summary and outlook of all this while things are in full motion and can hardly be controlled by any government alone on the globe?

The options and needs are numerous. The current man-machine-alignment first and foremost means that there is an upcoming necessity of robot politics on an official level which urgently needs to be transferred from the implicit and philosophical to the explicit and legal dimension. Far more important than the warnings of inventors, investors, advocates, opponents or visionaries is the question of the practical and concrete role of states and the United Nations in clarifying the future juridical status of “intelligent” robots and their relation to both national and international legal systems so far conceived exclusively for humans (along with, obviously, the animal rights movements).

Although many have branded the citizenship award to “Sophia” as a pure advertising stunt, and although there is broad agreement that “Artificial Intelligence” in the strict sense still does not exist and is not expected to be available until the mid-century (according, for example, to Ray Kurzweil and the Global Future 2045 Congress, around 2045), progress in the field seems to be rather more exponential than linear. Given the potential effects of the first (indirect) U.N. robot citizenship, its inclusion in an encompassing strategy is imminent and cannot be limited to traditional “technology politics,” but must reach out to “societal politics” in a much broader sense, including the future of citizenship, international law and man-machine ethics both in open and closed, liberal and illiberal societies on a widely new level.

Most important, the future of intelligent AI robots has already become a concrete factor of power politics in the framework of the new multipolar global order, or “G-Zero” world, where there seems to be a heightened potential for conflict and where technological advances are becoming crucial for economic and military supremacy given that advanced weapons are increasingly difficult to employ without creating major disruptions. States such as China and some Arab states are trying with all their means and with their full range of effort to engage in the interface between human-like robotics and artificial intelligence, with the goal of acquiring power and at the same time proving the technological supremacy of their illiberal social model over the West. They are exploring the use of AI in “soft power” and subsequently for both contextual and direct military purposes. However, emerging nations in particular, who are lining up more and more to parallel the West through non-liberal and non-democratic orders, apparently do not know how to induce such a societally sustainable relationship between new, intelligent humanoid technologies and their so-far mainly “bio-conservative” human citizens, including in particular human dignity and human rights - which many of them cannot include in their legally relevant actions since they do not usually practice them.

The fact that up to now only western open societies are asking the question of how to provide rights to intelligent machines without harming their principles of pluralism, human rights, and their concepts of personhood and equality for humans is an indication that closed societies such as China or Saudi Arabia will break all possible ethical frontiers previously imposed by the western liberal order on the global community to get technological advantages. Their goal is to acquire and develop new, human-like technologies to advance the power of their illiberal societies. They lack, however, the restrictions or inhibitions provided by an adequate history of ideas or traditions of philosophical and political man-machine reflection.

In fact, there can be no greater contradiction between the orthodox interpretation of Islam and the upgrading of “transhumanist” technology to human dignity, such as Saudi Arabia’s granting of citizenship to “Sophia.” Women in Saudi Arabia are second-class citizens who cannot even pass citizenship on to their children without permission from their male family members. Additionally, Saudi law officially doesn’t allow the bestowal of citizenship to non-Muslims – so is robot “Sophia” now automatically a Muslim, or has she chosen to “convert”? Her builders and owners apparently do not care, and neither, it seems, do the Saudi rulers. Their actions can be explained against the background of narrow political goals, which are mainly domestic: the aspired “modernization” of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism to a “more moderate Islam,” as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in October 2017. He has been using this slogan, however, above all to eliminate opponents and to consolidate his own power. Such rulers by divine right are apparently not aware of the potential effects of their actions on the whole of humanity. Formal-juridical humanization of artificial intelligence goes much further than the strengthening of the inner leadership in such day-to-day politics.

The basic paradox of today’s epoch is that the “overcoming of man” by machines seems to be starting with illiberal states and autocratic leaders such as these. This can only cast alarm in the face of western open societies, which are becoming more and more a minority in the world. Actions such as the unreflective granting of citizenship to robots are, as they stand now, in principle opposed to fundamental open society values such as enlightenment and rational humanism, which dominated the democratic western-led world order after the Second World War. Emerging countries are now using new, human-like technology to undermine the western order by undermining human rights through the transfer of citizenship to machines.

And that’s just part of the puzzle, which reveals a descending West and a disillusioned Europe at the intersection of the new technology-human convergence, whose achievements are turned against itself. The precedent created by Saudi Arabia will also affect the West, including in particular its lead nations, the United States and Europe. Open societies will soon be forced by law to establish rules on questions such as citizenship for artificial intelligence and robots.

What is needed for such innovative legislation? In essence, we need more inter- and transdisciplinary Future of Humanity Institutes, like the – so far – only existing one at Oxford University. All big think tanks in the West should establish their own such Institute or Task Force or Expert Program, in order to counterbalance the less conscious but growing influence of closed societal models with regard to advanced technology globally. In this sense, the government declaration of Germany’s federal state North Rhine-Westphalia Prime Minister Armin Laschet in September 2017 was exemplary. In it, Laschet, just two months before “Citizen Sophia,” called for the establishment of novel institutes for the reflection on and anticipation of the social and political impact of artificial intelligence on all levels of western multi-level governance.

On the other hand, the countless unsolved juridical questions that surfaced with the citizenship awarded to Sophia abound to such a degree that it will need governments and international, if not global cooperation to solve them – and we can foresee that there will be different opinions between the liberal and the illiberal players, between those which are democracies and which aren’t, thus contributing to a divide that will be fundamental over the coming years and determine the course of the twenty-first century: the divide between democracies, who care who gets citizenship because everyone has the same one vote – and thus numbers count – and non-democracies, who do not care because it doesn’t matter since just a few rule irrespective of all others.

In this framework, the legal questions on how to treat AI robots will become even more pressing over the coming years. Again, a true general AI has not been developed yet, but we are certainly not so far off that we should not be thinking about it. Concrete questions are many: When should AIs get citizenship? How should we think about legal issues like liability and intellectual property in a world populated by AIs? What are the human obligations to our creations? And to ourselves, given that AI may soon exist? Finally, how will we know when the concept of “rights” becomes meaningful? For example, does citizenship for “Sophia” mean that “she” can no longer be possessed like a thing? Things can be bought and traded – humans can’t. And as far as we know, citizens can’t either. And citizen robots?

And: Once a citizen, should AI robots have voting rights? One of the primary rights of “citizens” in the strict sense is to vote and to be voted for – so what about citizen robots? This could become a crucial question for the future of open societies in particular, since, as mentioned, unlike closed and illiberal societies, in open democratic societies it is the sheer numbers that count, and everybody has the same vote. What about the votes of citizen robots when their numbers outstrip those of humans? Will there be joint political techno-parties which will be trying to reconcile both parts, or will there be a “parliamentary war” between human and robot parties? Will there be “first-hand” citizens (allegedly: humans) and “second-handers” (robots)?

There are many more legal questions which are as multifaceted and multidimensional as unclarified and complex. Mainly it has been the European Union that has advanced practical legislative proposals of how to deal with human-like robots in the future, and how to “integrate” them politically in peaceful ways into open societies, extending the concept of “pluralism” from the relation between humans to the interrelation of humans and machines, and perhaps convergence between humans and machines. Besides individual U.S. proposals such as that from Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates that robots should pay taxes soon if they take away human jobs, and still relatively isolated initiatives such as the New York City launch of an AI task force in 2018 focusing on the potential deployment of AI in the public sector and on the consequences for the city’s labor force, the European Union has gone farther by suggesting, at the pre-decisional level, the bestowal of fundamental rights of “electronic personhood” to robots, partly in exchange for unconditional basic income for humans. Building on the work of several task forces and working groups in the European parliament connected with the legal bureau of the European Commission, a committee featuring the collaboration of former MEP Eva Lichtenberger and MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, the (probable) upcoming minister of Justice in the German federal state of Schleswig-Holstein, and experts such as Ralf Bendrath and Peter Kirchschläger, has been working since 2013, eventually leading to a resolution of the European parliament in January 2017. Although the focus was mainly on the social effects of AI robotics and the intellectual and property rights of future intelligent machines, one crucial aspect was the debate on the question of what the “legal personality” of AI robots could be in the future.

The resolution, which was accepted by the parliament’s legal affairs committee by a 17-2 vote with 2 abstentions, stated that the conferment of “electronic personhood” to the most advanced “intelligent robots” “would be analogous to corporate personhood, which allows firms to take part in legal cases both as the plaintiff and respondent. ‘It is similar to what we now have for companies, but it is not for tomorrow,‘ said the report’s author, Luxembourgish MEP Mady Delvaux. ‘What we need now is to create a legal framework for the robots that are currently on the market or will become available over the next 10 to 15 years.’” The proposal also drafts new duties for companies which employ the most advanced AI robots in the future with regard to insurance policies, and foresees an obligatory system of registration for the most advanced “smart autonomous robots” in order to control their proliferation and know their whereabouts.

Despite its apparently liberal stance, this nonbinding proposal has been debated in extremely controversial ways ever since, even within the European Union itself. Although according to most experts it did not aim to induce civil rights for robots in the strict sense and on a broad level, and although according to EU procedures it was just a blueprint for a legal proposal by the EU Commission which is the only body to be legitimated to propose concrete regulations then to be debated by the EU parliament, many critics regarded such an approach as going too far in setting a precedent in favor of blurring the differences between humans and machines, thus threatening the humanistic fundaments of European society. Many warned that “Saudi Arabia’s robot citizen was eroding human rights,” and that the proposal of the EU would indirectly stimulate similar procedures by illiberal nations as Saudi Arabia’s against the Western democratic order. Others claimed that such a proposal would favor the proliferation of promotional actions such as “Sophia” and lead to a global competition in the sector, further pushing the business and its intermingling with human and statal affairs.

In the eyes of many, not only was Saudi Arabia’s decision wrong, but it was more dangerous for the West than for the nation itself. Others saw the “dangers behind smiling robot Sophia” mainly in the potential to replace the constitutions of open societies by a new “robot legislature” of unprecedented – and uncontrollable – consequences. Eventually, the concerns included the argument that conferring citizenship or any other personal rights is in principle possible only to “unique identities.” And that giving citizenship to robots was an “existential risk” to the very principle of citizenship as such:To grant a robot citizenship is a declaration of trust in a technology that is not yet trustworthy. It brings social and ethical concerns that we as humans are not yet ready to manage.”

As a consequence, in March 2017 a Council of Europe report was presented under the title “Technological convergence, artificial intelligence and human rights” by French MEP Jean-Yves Le Daut, member of the Socialist Group of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, on behalf of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media. Pointing out the particular complexity of the issue of robot rights and the difficulty democratic lawmakers have in addressing the issue, it proposed proceeding with the utmost caution by ensuring, in the first place, “the need for any machine, any robot or any artificial intelligence artefact to remain under human control; insofar as the machine in question is intelligent solely through its software, any power it is given must be able to be withdrawn from it.” To rethink citizenship and identity because of the actions of a few was, in the opinion of many EU lawmakers, a step far too fast and early, given that “Sophia” is still not AI in the strict sense but rather a “work of art.”

The conflicting legal approaches within the EU manifest how “deep,” far-reaching, and difficult the question related to the conferment of rights to robots is and will remain for the coming years. The full problem will indeed only appear when AI becomes “AI” in the strict sense and when there are “real” AI-robots; not with “Sophia” which as yet remains more of an advertising hoax than an “autonomous machinal intelligence.” The fact that the U.N. didn’t intervene when Saudi Arabia bestowed its citizenship to “Sophia” can be explained by the fact that Saudi Arabia is one out of 22 countries which has not signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which “grants to every citizen the right to ‘take part in the conduct of public affairs,’ ‘vote and to be elected,’ and ‘have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.’” Nevertheless, the U.N.’s passivity in such crucial precedents is just another symptom of the deep crisis the organization is undergoing, and of the need of its reform which will coincide with the now urgently needed reform of globalization. The only memorable explicit critique of U.N. representatives came from United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed who said that “The influence of technology on our society should be determined by actions of humans and not by machines. If technological progress is not managed well, it risks exacerbating existing inequalities.” According to Amina Mohammed, in an opinion shared by many in the U.N. behind closed doors, citizenship for robot “Sophia” is not only a contradiction, but an offense against the idea and practice of the United Nations, particularly as Saudi Arabia ignores the rights indirectly conferred with the U.N. declaration of human rights to which all U.N. member states de facto agree and which are to be protected according to U.N. Charter Chapter I, article 1.3.

Other U.N. and international bodies’ critiques were widely lacking, even though it is the U.N. itself which will be challenged to contribute to the issue more than others, perhaps through its still widely unused academic instrument, the United Nations University (UNU). Indeed, the upcoming legal dispute within open societies and between liberal and illiberal societies would be a core topic for the UNU to address by international and trans-cultural in-depth comparative research of proposals between Japan (its headquarters), Germany (where most offices are located) and the United States, where the global center of its mother institution is located, including then of course other players such as China, Russia, the Arab nations, and South America where the UNU still widely lacks stable and permanent institutional roots.

Saudi Arabia does not seem to have thought through their decision of bestowing citizenship on robots. In the meantime, the responding reasoning of western experts in the service of governments and democratic institutions seems to be driven by conflicting arguments which, given the speed of development, cannot build on any precedent, yet are by their debate (necessarily) setting precedents without the desirable experience on the ground. Many lawmakers are in the meantime aware that by proposing to confer rights on robots following the dubious precedent of illiberal societies, western societies are opening a Pandora’s box – to the probable disadvantage of open societies and their concept of individual and personal human rights which others don’t share. Many warn that it is exaggerated liberalism to allow a private, profit-oriented enterprise with a private ideology combined with a universalist world view such as that of Hanson Robotics to influence the international system of human rights at the expense of all humans on the globe. All just for its own profit – and nobody checks it.

To carry the hypocrisy to the extreme, “Sophia” is now becoming a civil society activist and human rights fighter, according to the ideas of her creator Dr. David Hanson. He obviously thinks that with citizenship of a U.N. country “she” is now already an officially recognized part of the “human family.” Given that new Saudi Arabian citizen Sophia already has more rights than women living in the country, “she” is now calling for women’s rights in developing countries, and in general, becoming a prominent women’s rights activist. Ironically, given Saudi Arabia’s strict religious order, others went even further to ask: Can robots which seemingly are at the verge of becoming recognized citizens now join the faith? And: Sophia has seven humanoid siblings, all built by Hanson Robotics: will they, or even must they, now get citizen rights also as a matter of principle?

In the case of “Citizen Sophia,” nobody would deny that the interests of the firm Hanson Robotics and its suggestions played a role in Saudi Arabia’s decision. This means that in order to master the question of rights in a post-human world, we do not only need to address legal questions on robots, but also to clarify by legal means how far the influence of private enterprises can and should go in the future to set the tone of social innovation by creating precedents for the global community out of profit interests controlled neither by global governing bodies nor by democratic vote. The latter question will be at least as important for the upcoming reform of globalization as the question of rights for robots.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • On October 25, 2017, the China-built U.S.-engineered “female” robot “Sophia” became an official citizen of the U.N. member state Saudi Arabia; a state which does not practice fundamental human rights, personal freedom, or gender equality. This set a historic precedent for the global community regarding how to classify intelligent robots and machines whose effects will fully surface only over the coming years. In face of the blurring boundaries between man and machine at the will of illiberal and authoritarian regimes, the alliance of global open societies must reiterate its fundamentals: human and personal rights, and a liberal order based on humanistic definitions, including the differentiation between humans and machines.

Response Essays

  • Rachel Lomasky points out the severe technical limitations of today’s otherwise impressive AI. Bots are adept at specialized tasks, but they are incapable of adapting their knowledge to new circumstances beyond the tasks for which they are designed. In this respect, even human children far surpass them. If general intelligence is a requirement for citizenship, then we are a long way away from a robot republic.

  • Zoltan Istvan describes a complicated future when humans aren’t the only sapients around anymore. Citizenship for “Sophia” was a publicity stunt, but it won’t always be so. Istvan insists that if technology continues on the path it has traveled, then there is only one viable option ahead for humanity: We must merge with our creations and “go full cyborg.” If we do not, then machines may easily replace us.

  • David D. Friedman says human-like robots are a distraction. If general AI arrives, we’ll have much more pressing problems to worry about, probably starting with the ability to copy. What happens when the first sentient AI copies itself ten thousand times? What if they vote? What if they own property, and if they argue about what to do with it? What if the original later deletes the copies? Friedman offers few answers, but does show the utter strangeness of the world that we may face one day.

  • Ryan Calo argues that the West has no need of a serious conversation about AI rights. Current implementations of artificial intelligence are nothing like humans, and the questions that a genuine AI might pose are at least a century away, and perhaps much longer. Rather, we should ask about the decisions that algorithms are making today, and how these choices may erode our existing human rights.