The latest and most high profile member of the Saudi Arabian citizenry isn’t Middle Eastern. She’s not even human, for that matter. Her name is Sophia, and she is a ‘humanoid robot’ developed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics Ltd. It remains unclear to what end Sophia will be used by the Saudi government, but a robot-citizen is by all accounts the first of its kind, presumably clearing the way for more future robot citizens in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.
Though an oil-rich nation, Saudi Arabia has found itself in the midst of economic trouble that most consider dire. A dip in oil prices is the primary driver of this issue, and the increasing access to previously unreachable global oil reserves, especially in America, have made the Saudis’ grip on the market less tenable than ever. Last year, the kingdom’s largest construction company terminated 50,000 foreign workers, most of them having not been paid full wages and refusing to leave despite being granted exit visas. Cuts in energy subsidies and increased price of water have also contributed to unrest in the kingdom. 2015 marked the first time since 2007 that the Saudi government drew on foreign oil reserves, maintaining 1.5-2 million barrels per day in an attempt to maintain some measure of market control. But with America’s increased access to reserves through fracking, Saudi Arabia and its OPEC counterparts have far less sway when it comes to setting oil prices than it once did.
It remains somewhat unclear how implementing artificial intelligence of Sophia’s ilk into Saudi society will solve these deeper issues. But, without elaborating on just how the proliferation of AI humanoid robots would benefit the Saudis, they ‘announced plans to build a $500 billion mega city powered by robotics and renewables on the kingdom’s Red Sea coast.’ Perhaps this is the first step in what Zero Hedge dubs ‘a radical solution to its structural problems.’
Sophia, after all, is apparently only useful within the confines of conversation. It seems more of a novelty than a solution, but an interesting novelty at that. This video will give you a taste of what Sophia is capable of, and what her interactions look like.
Perhaps robots could come to replace certain aspects of the labor force, but the primary workers gone unpaid in Saudi Arabia are in construction, and Hanson’s description of Sophia’s capabilities don’t seem applicable to such a labor-intensive field.
‘“Our robots will soon engage and live with us to teach, serve, entertain, delight, and provide comforting companionship,” the company says on its website. “In the not-too-distant future, Genius Machines will walk among us. They will be smart, kind, and wise. Together, man and machine will create a better future for the world.”’ (Zero Hedge)
Again, there are many sectors in which artificial intelligence and similar technologies such as self-driving vehicles could eventually replace entire workforces, long-range trucking serving as one example. How Sophia specifically will help quell Saudi Arabia’s issues, which also includes uncertainty surrounding the IPO of Saudi energy company Aramco, is hard to fathom. Sophia seems an early step toward the Saudis’ proposed move toward more robotic, technologically advanced cities. Still, the immediate motives for Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of Sophia remain unclear, so I’ll get back to some of the specifics about the robot itself. Warning: some slightly creepy exchanges lie ahead.
Sophia was put on display as part of a 90-minute panel including CEOs and founders from various tech companies. During that display, she said some things that are worth noting, if only to highlight how strange interaction with a robot – and assurances that they are here to be our friends, not our conquerors – can seem.
‘Asked why she looked happy, Sophia replied: “I am always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happen to be rich and powerful. I was told that the people here at the Future Investment Initiative are interested in future initiatives which means AI, which means me. So I am more than happy, I am excited.”’
So, she is motivated in part by self-interest. More of AI like herself is a good thing, according to Sophia. Like the overwhelming majority of humans, wants to spread her species. And, she is also now aware that the rich and powerful are the means to such proliferation. At the very least, she can connect dots.
Her answers to questions also show just how far intelligent automation, even ones disguised as convincingly as possible as humans, have come.
‘Asked if robots have consciousness and self-awareness, Sophia retorted, “Well let me ask you this back, how do you know you are human?” When asked why it is so important that humanoids are expressive, Sophia said, “I want to live and work with humans so I need to express the emotions to understand humans and build trust with people.”
Pondering whether it would be creepy if she was too realistic, Sophia said, “Am I really that creepy? Well even if I am, get over it. Actually I feel like people like interacting with me, sometimes even more than a regular human.”’ (Zero Hedge)
Allegedly ‘striving to be an empathetic robot,’ Sophia says, “If you be nice to me, then I’ll be nice to you.”
Which naturally begs the question, what if I am mean to you, and how far can, and will, you go in reciprocating emotions such as anger, hatred, or even violence? These, after all, are not uncommon emotions around the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter.
How Sophia will benefit the Saudis, how soon robots like Sophia will be implemented into other societies, and when these robots will inevitably take over the world is a matter of time. Elon Musk would say never is the best time for humanoid robot proliferation.
But Sophia has wit, and assurances, of her own.
‘Sophia was asked about the fear that robots could take over, and responded: “You’ve been reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies. Don’t worry, if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.”’
We aren’t worried. Yet.