Sophia, with Love and Hate
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.
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.” No wonder Sophia made the cover of Elle magazine faster than any Native American woman.
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.
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.
 Hanson Robotics website and company overview brochure (emphasis is mine): http://www.hansonrobotics.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Hanson-Robotics-Overview.pdf
 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).
This piece was originally published in The Baffler