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Sophia, with Love and Hate

Will robot rights outweigh migrant and indigenous futures?

How is it possible to imagine robot rights over and above the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples, migrants, and dispossessed?

Increasingly, automation has become a topic of concern, both for those who fear widespread unemployment and for those who want utopian freedom from labor and capitalist time. However, like much thought about technology in the West, this dualism itself is myopic. Across the Persian Gulf, for example, migrant slave labor will remain cheaper than investment in dreams of robotic revolution. If it wasn’t for migrant labor—including refugees fleeing from the takeover of agricultural systems in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh by biotech companies—the glitzy cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Riyadh would not have risen from the desert in such a short time span.

But I’m getting ahead of myself . . . I’m here to talk about Sophia.

Who, or better yet what, is Sophia? As of 2017, she is the most famous nationalized citizen of Saudi Arabia.

Unveiled in 2015 by Hanson Robotics, Sophia is designed to look like Audrey Hepburn.

Sophia is also an AI-based robot, relying on automatic speech recognition (ASR), text-to-speech (TTS), Latent Semantic Analysis statistics (LSA), emotion recognition techniques, and computer vision “to simulate an eerily human conversational intelligence.” Unveiled in 2015 by Hanson Robotics, Sophia appeared on the human stage gendered as a white woman, typified in established ideas of femininity: “Designed to look like Audrey Hepburn, Sophia embodies Hepburn’s classic beauty: porcelain skin, a slender nose, high cheekbones, an intriguing smile, and deeply expressive eyes that seem to change color with the light.”[1] No wonder Sophia made the cover of Elle magazine faster than any Native American woman.[2]

But lest we accuse Hanson Robotics of forgetting feminist struggles in the workplace, Sophia has also “shown her potential in business, having met face-to-face with key decision makers across industries including banking, insurance, auto manufacturing, property development, media and entertainment,” and has even “appeared onstage as a panel member and presenter in high-level conferences.” Sophia is “a media darling,” and as with most starlets it starts with a name—could the company have been more philosophically clichéd in naming her Sophia (meaning wisdom)?

Sophia’s citizenship was granted at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh this past October, very much in a ceremony of privilege. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia and across much of the Gulf, foreign nationals average almost half (or in some cases even surpass) the number of Arab nationals; and yet, for them, attaining citizenship is mostly an impossible business. Which is to say that even if Sophia’s unveiling is a media stunt, it’s hard to deny what’s being presented: here is a future where robots will be citizens, hence human, while migrants keep on being robots, hence subhuman. After all, the etymology of robot, in Czech, is “forced labor or worker,” which refers not to nonhuman androids but simply to servitude.[3]

But Sophia’s is a different sort of servitude: not factory or construction work but services. Whereas ABB robot arms steal jobs from the factory floor (in Germany, not Saudi Arabia, of course), Sophia was invented to “assist visitors at parks and events”—mostly tech summits, I imagine: first as a farce on stage and then yet again as a farce on the volunteer market. She has also been designed to “help seniors in elderly care facilities,” putting her on a collision course with the market of Philippine domestic servants and slave women to Saudi families.

But that’s just where the farce begins. Once a minimally convincing AI is achieved, it is Sophia’s factory ecosystem that must be automated—either by further robots (that is, the replication of class hierarchy among robots) or by “Amazon Turks” on the end of the line (client support will answer from India).

Sophia embodies a clash between futures. By perpetuating a modern capitalist mentality, one that incorporates white tech’s vision of the future—with its fears of AI (very much palpable in San Francisco!)—she becomes an affront to other possible futures, including Afro-Futurism and Indigenous Futurism. These movements have long imagined other android dreams, which have nothing to do with any tech summit.

At the same time, her recently acquired citizenship is also revealing of future forms of capitalism that are central to such summits: Tech Capitalism, Sino Capitalism, and Arab Capitalism. Faced with the failing state of a modern-secular form of capitalism, US and EU led (historical differences notwithstanding), these capitalist futures forge agreements with cultural, anthropological, and religious practices formerly reproved. Today, these agreements define ontological fault lines, which may reinforce or dismiss human ≠ nonhuman, life ≠ death binaries. In all these futures, capitalist and otherwise, we in the “former West” are the barbarians.

In making Sophia, a subservient AI professional, Hanson Robotics’ fears seem to have been precisely class consciousness—or the robot insurrection narrative trope made famous in Western cinema, through which their humanity is said to be attained, not because of any soul but simply by replicating what they see most in us: class struggle; for it is in this way that Sophia would become a “political animal.” The company’s solution was itself intelligent: make her part of the ruling class.

But it’s not Sophia’s inheritance of human traits and psychopathologies that make me (both a human and a humanist) afraid; it’s that, as she spoke on stage in Riyadh, she emerged as a meritocratic bourgeois. I’m afraid of her class, not her species.

I am not afraid beings like her will kill and enslave us humans; I’m concerned with the fact that she may more simply forget that we exist at all, leaving the poorer among us to rot without welfare. Hanson Robotics’ vision, after all, is to make “genius machines.”

But what is the genius behind this meritocratic machine? Hanson Robotics is based in Hong Kong and praises itself for learning from the toy making talent of industries in neighboring Guangdong, stating: “The rich electro-mechanical know-how in Guangdong is analogous for robotics to the depth of IT know-how in Silicon Valley.”[4] Meaning: Sophia provides Western “intelligence” (however artificial!) with Guandong’s penchant for outsourced, laboring bodies (Oriental, African, or otherwise).

Sophia’s privilege, or lack thereof, involves matters of class, race, and gender. If you’re a well-intentioned futurist, perhaps you’re glad that her recently acquired citizenship may bring her closer to humanity, but consider also that empathy towards robots need not equate robots to humans for their rights to be asserted. First, as claimed by indigenous rights—including the rights of nature: from mountains to deltas—the concept of humanity is not the property of the modern West. Second, even in modern capitalism, corporations do not need to be human, much less be anthropomorphic, to acquire legal personhood—in fact, robots may soon acquire legal personhood in same way American corporations already have. After all, corporate personhood was originally acquired on the shoulders of the rights of freed slaves as inscribed in the 14th amendment.

We need more androids in drag.

This, too, is why we don’t need more androids, and films about androids, that drag themselves in plots about the soul and humanity. What we do need are more androids, and android stories, in drag. I’m talking about black robotics, native androids, queer AI. Other humanities.

I can now reboot.

How is it possible to imagine robot and AI rights while considering the rights of indigenous people and the racialized poor? Both in a practical and speculative sense, the granting and claiming of rights (citizen, human, or natural) lays the ground for other futures. In the case of Sophia, it should be remembered that her citizenship was granted.

Yet the relation between granting and claiming is decisive. For if rights lay the ground for futures, the distinction between claiming and granting defines relations to the past and history; it determines agency. The abolition of slavery, from the US to African liberation struggles, was the result of endless insurrections, organized by black men and women who have long been forgotten, but also by many who have not: Zumbi dos Palmares and his wife Dandara in the Brazilian quilombos; Dutty Boukman and Toussaint Louverture during the Haitian Revolution; Amílcar Cabral in the movements for independence from Portuguese colonies. The abolition of slavery was not granted, it was claimed. The sovereignty of indigenous peoples was never granted, it was claimed. The same for the rights of nature.

I want to think of AI and robot rights as we think about indigenous rights. I’d prefer dyslexic androids, stuttering robots, poetic AI, cybernetic slang—not robots who speak in a British, imperial accent, or host tech summits for that matter!  But maybe we’ll have to wait for the android replica of Phillip K. Dick for that.[5]


[1] Hanson Robotics website and company overview brochure (emphasis is mine).


[3] Writers Karel and Josef Capek first used the word in relation to what we now understand as technological, sci-fi robots in the 1920’s theater play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robot).

[4] Hanson Robotics website and company overview brochure (emphasis is mine).

[5] Hanson Robotics is, in fact, planning a Phillip K. Dick robot lookalike. You can see a video of it here: I have little doubt that such robot will have some telling things to teach us.