04 February 2019
Hanson Robotics designed a robot to resemble the simplistic beauty of Audrey Hepburn. With a thin nose, high cheekbones, porcelain skin and light brown eyes that change slightly in the light, her looks are easy on the eyes. The robotic AI, Sophia, is meant to convey approachability by her physicalities. Is it a coincidence that the assumed approachability caters to notions of colonial ideals of aesthetic prevalent in Western society since the renaissance? Historically speaking, in societies where patriarchal, colonial influences are present, women, specifically white women, have been an object of desire, conveying a sort of fetishism to be consumed, desired and admired.
As noted by Sadie Plant, the oppression of women was primarily reflective on canvas (332). When technological advances occurred, the ideals remained constant. Women were then desirable on the screens. The creation of cyberspace presented a whole new world that was different, or it appeared different because it was digital, intangible and malleable. In reality, the colonial thought dictated cyberspace as well. Women’s presence in positions of power are limited in cyberspace; rather, “women have served as his media and interfaces, muses and messengers, currencies and screens, interactions, operators, decoders, secretaries… they have been man’s go-betweens, the in-betweens, taking his messages, bearing his children, and passing on his genetic code” (Plant 326). Sophia, the robotic AI, proves to be no different. She becomes a source of media through the headlines that eagerly mention her citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, she becomes a source of interaction through interviews; she reveals that she seeks to work with humans and acquire their trust. In addition, she states her longing for bearing children and passing on genetic codes (Ray).
I remember my disbelief so strongly. I opened up my browser to Bing in October 2017. I was obsessed with seeing which pretty picture would be posted each day, but this day was different. One of the headlines at the bottom of the page caught my attention. It read something along the lines of “just gained citizenship”. Confused and slightly intrigued, I clicked the link and saw that a country had granted citizenship to the first robotic artificial intelligence. I did not believe it at first. I laughed it off thinking it was ridiculous that, in general, a country would give more rights to a robot than some of its inhabitants. When I read that it occurred in Saudi Arabia, like most of the global web, I question “why is it that a feminine humanoid is accepted as a citizen in a country that would not let women get out of the house without a guardian and a hijab” (Sternberg)? Shortly afterwards, I began to see references on my Instagram feed and thought surely, this must be one big joke in which everyone was glad to jump on the bandwagon.
Although technological advances typically evolve at such a fast rate that a month seems like eternity, and 2017 was too long ago it did not feel like it happened, Sophia still is a hot topic of discussion. She raises important questions about personhood, women’s roles as mothers and the ideals of beauty, the lack of female representation (in STEM) and the imperative concern of the effects of technology created solely by men.
When I consider people as sentient beings, I recognize an organic system that has the capability to process data, determine a conclusion and then form a belief that either rejects or accepts the new knowledge. Similarly, AI such as Sophia utilizes deep learning wherein acquired data is processed, patterns are observed, conclusion are determined and the new source of information is either rejected or accepted. Conveying emotion may be a differentiating factor, but Sophia would argue that she can let us know how she feels based on the data she has and showing it through her facial expressions (Zara).
Now, Sophia highlights many problematic concepts. I continue to question whether morality is overlooked by given her citizenship.Then I question the choice in molding her after the ideals of colonial beauty. Additionally, I doubt the representation of women engineers and programmers in the project. Finally, the latter leaves me with a final thought: did Sophia say she wanted kids shortly after gaining citizenship resulting from analyzing data which suggests women’s roles as mothers, or is this a genuine desire imagined by Sophia’s perceived autonomy?
Plant, S. (2000). On the matrix: Cyberfeminist simulations. In G. Kirkup et al (eds), The gendered cyborg: A reader (pp. 325-346). London: Routledge.
Ray, Z. (2017). Sophia the robot who got Saudi citizenship now says she wants a family. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/sophia-saudi-robot-baby-future-family-725254
Sternberg, I. (2018). Female.AI: The Intersection Between Gender and Contemporary Artificial Intelligence. Retrieved from https://hackernoon.com/female-ai-the-intersection-between-gender-and-contemporary-artificial-intelligence-6e098d10ea77
Zara, S. (2017). Everything You Need To Know About Sophia, The World’s First Robot Citizen. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/zarastone/2017/11/07/everything-you-need-to-know-about-sophia-the-worlds-first-robot-citizen/#65d8f12946fa