The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a nation with a population of roughly 32 million humans, recently became the first country to grant citizenship to a robot. A robot, named Sophia.
This is Sophia.
A ‘life-like’ humanoid (yes that’s the official term) that can pull faces and address a crowd of (in her words) “wealthy, smart Saudis”, Sophia was designed by US based company Hanson Robotics.
Apparently she’s meant to look like Audrey Hepburn.
The designers say they created Sophia to be a social robot, capable of creativity, empathy and compassion like humans but “smarter”. Their idea is that robots like Sophia will work to help solve world problems too complex for us ordinary homo sapiens to do alone. They vaguely suggest that Sophia wants to protect humanity.
A cool idea in theory. I mean hey, if this Holly Golightly can solve global warming I say have at it.
But my question is why make Sophia a citizen? Is it right or fair to give a robot an (until now) inherently human right to achieve this goal? It got me thinking, if robots can be citizens now what exactly does being a citizen mean?
As the descendant of two Australian citizens, and having been born an Australian citizen who, to date, hasn’t given any serious thought to pursuing citizenship anywhere, the question of what it means to be a citizen is one I’ll confess I’ve never given the thought it deserves. But I know that for others citizenship is an integral part of their identity; for many more it’s something contentious and citizen participation can be very difficult.
While there are many philosophical debates on its true meaning, for the most part the traditional concept of being a citizen is about holding a legal status which is central to our identities in many ways and ties us to political responsibility (and benefits) of a particular nation. It’s supposed to be what connects us to a geographical territory and political protections.
Being determined a citizen in the traditional manner doesn’t necessarily mean citizens are afforded equal rights though. For example, women in Saudi Arabia, Sophia’s new home, may hold citizen status but are subject to various restrictions and rules which their male counterparts are not.
This definition of citizenship from ye olde internet actually begs more questions than it answers.
So, instead of trying to answer them all myself, I put it to a few different people to find out what citizenship means to them.
What does being a citizen mean to you?
Perhaps I am being cynical but I feel that, in an increasingly mobile world, citizenship doesn’t always seem to align with how individuals live their day to day lives. For instance, I am a New Zealand citizen, but it has been 6 years since I actually lived there. I keep up with the politics around election time and my New Zealand friends hound me to ensure I vote. My New Zealand friends now residing in New York proudly proclaim they have voted when they haven’t stepped foot in the land of the long white cloud since who knows when and have no plan to return.
I wonder whether it is worth voting when it’s been so long since I lived in the country and I don’t intend to live there for the foreseeable future. At this point, do I truly merit the status of citizenship, influencing the fortunes of citizens who actually inhabit the country?
As an Australian-born child of two Australian-born parents, my citizenship is something that has never felt especially challenged. Through primary school, all of my friends were also born Aussie citizens and so it wasn’t until I came into contact with people who wanted citizenship of their own, that I became aware that it might also be a privilege. Although citizenship does seem an outdated concept, I imagine to be granted citizenship makes it easier to find comfort in calling a country home.
Along with the liberty to work and vote freely in Australia, there is a comfort in being able to identify with the wider population.
I was born and grew up in Scotland but I’ve now lived in Melbourne for over eight years and I recently became an Australian citizen.
For me, becoming a citizen was the next logical step after being on a working visa for years, then becoming a permanent resident. Citizenship offered me more security, stability and permanence as I built my life in Australia. I feel lucky that, for me, it was a simple and relatively easy process. It’s not that easy for everyone. I also feel privileged that I can be a dual citizen which, again, is not something that not everyone is afforded.
Being a citizen means I now have the right to vote. This means a lot to me as it allows me to have a say on the things that impact me, my friends, and my family living here. Before becoming a citizen, I was a bystander in the country that I had lived in for 8 years, but now I have the ability to participate.
Do I feel I identify as an Australian after becoming a citizen? Honestly, I still feel more connected to my home country of Scotland in terms of culture and identity than Australia and becoming a citizen hasn’t changed that. My connection to Scotland is obviously more than a geographical or political one. I’m tied by family, friends and memories. While I don’t have the same connection with Australia yet, I do feel very lucky to be a citizen here and expect that my connection will only grow.