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Pretending to give a robot citizenship helps no one

Pretending to give a robot citizenship helps no one

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Sophia the robot has been on a roll lately. Earlier in the year, its creator David Hanson told Jimmy Fallon that the bot is “basically alive.” At the beginning of October, it showed up at the United Nations, announcing to delegates: “I am here to help humanity create the future.” And just last week, Sophia was awarded an honorary citizenship by Saudi Arabia. The headline from Arab News? “Sophia the robot becomes first humanoid Saudi citizen.”

If this sounds like a PR stunt to you, well, you’re right: the Saudi kingdom was using this eye-grabbing headline to promote a tech summit, part of its nationwide policy to transform an oil-based economy into something more forward-thinking. But it’s not just headline fluff. Some experts say this sort of approach to robot rights is actively damaging, both to public understanding of technology and to civil society itself.

“It’s obviously bullshit,” Joanna Bryson, a researcher in AI ethics at the University of Bath, tells The Verge. “What is this about? It’s about having a supposed equal you can turn on and off. How does it affect people if they think you can have a citizen that you can buy.”

The question of whether or not we should be giving robots rights is a big one, but first we need to be clear about what Sophia is — and that’s certainly not “basically alive,” no matter what its creator says.

Completely normal behavior.
Completely normal behavior.
Image: WSJ

Sophia is essentially a cleverly built puppet designed to exploit our cultural expectations of what a robot looks and sounds like. It can hold a stilted conversation, yes, but its one-liners seem to be prewritten responses to key words. (As Piers Morgan commented during an interview with Sophia, “Obviously these are programmed answers.”) And while Sophia does look sort-of-human, so do animatronic creations in theme parks. And in fact, that’s where Sophia’s creator Hanson honed his skills, spending years working as a Walt Disney imagineer making “characters and props.” A sample from his CV: “Sculpted numerous features in Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, serving as lead sculptor on the character trees and Heffalump balloons.”

Hanson’s big break seems to have been creating a realistic prosthetic head of his then-girlfriend and lab assistant. From there, he went to found his company Hanson Robotics, specializing in selling robots primarily as expressive and entertaining spectacles — not functional works. His creations are certainly impressive feats of engineering, but fundamentally, Hanson is in the theater business, and he exploits misconceptions about AI and robots (particularly how advanced they are) in order to sell the illusion.

But to move back to the central question here: even if Sophia was a conscious entity of some sort, would it be right to give it something like citizenship? Bryson says no, because doing so is a) unnecessary given you could always just bother to build a robot that isn’t conscious, and b) degrading to the concept of rights for actual living, breathing humans.

“The entire legal notion of personhood breaks down.”

“Allowing an AI to be a legal person is not going to be about humanoid robots,” Bryson tells The Verge. Instead, she compares it to the notion of corporate personhood, which gives companies some of the legal rights and responsibilities of people. Giving AI anything close to human rights would allow firms to “pass off both legal and tax liability to these completely synthetic entities,” says Bryson. “Basically the entire legal notion of personhood breaks down.”

This is not just an abstract argument. The European Parliament has been already been researching the possibility of giving robots the status of “electronic persons.”

For Bryson, though, it’s particularly telling that a country like Saudi Arabia would offer a robot citizenship, even as a stunt. The Saudi kingdom is often criticized for its treatment of migrant workers, who are kept in slave-like conditions. And when Sophia was given its citizenship, many pointed out the irony of this in a country where women were only given the right to drive last month. To Bryson, this shows that a lack of respect for human rights is linked to an interest in robot rights.

Avoiding the question altogether, though, may be difficult — especially with robots like Sophia. Beth Singler, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, says it’s hard to avoid the anthropomorphism that leads to mulling the issue of robot rights.

“I would say because we are social beings who need to place the things around ourselves into a social scheme that makes sense of them,” she tells The Verge over email. “We make a cosmology of beings in relation to our understanding of our own personhood.” And that includes an instinct to treat robots — especially robots that look and sound like us — as humans.

Singler, though, is more sanguine about the notion of giving robots something like human rights. After all, she says, “we will have to have debates about robot/AI rights and citizenship because at some point they will ask for them. This might sound like science fiction but even given the technology as it is today it would be remarkably easy for someone to add this request to a robot or AI’s conversational corpus.”

Update January 7th, 2018: The story has been updated with an extra line of comment from Dr Singler, clarifying her position on why robots may, in the future, ask for rights.