Sophia the robot citizen and the exercise of geontopower


When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Robotics Engineer. Turns out I never had the grades in math to do so and I ended up studying Political Science. I still enjoy reading news about the field. That is why, at the end of last year, I read about Sophia.

Built by the Hong-Kong company Hanson Robotics, Sophia is a humanoid robot. She can recognize faces and mimic up to sixty-two human expressions. What strikes me about Sophia is that, on October 25th, 2017, she became the first robot accessing citizenship in Saudi Arabia.After my reading of Elizabeth Povinelli, I started to think about the implications of Sophia’s existence for geontopower.

Povinelli argues that, today, there is a form of power, geontopower, which constantly sustains a difference between life and non-life. Focusing on the management of life, the Foucauldian notion of biopower only underlines the problem of normativity. But, for Povinelli, there is mostly a problem of existence, of what will be allowed to exist and be able to endure and what will not.

Povinelli develops her argument through the example of Tjipel in the Australian Aboriginal culture. Tjipel is a girl who became a boy who became a creek. She has different meanings for different people. Her reality shows the “fundamental irrelevance of the difference between life and nonlife”. Thus, Tjipel cannot be understood through the lens of biopower. Sophia, the robot citizen, blurs even more the line between life and non-life.

"It is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship"reacted Sophia after the announcement of her “naturalization”. Made of electronic components and silicon, Sophia is not a lively entity. Yet, she was granted the most honorable status for people living in a country. We gave her the kind of recognition and rights we usually give to our peers.

Citizenship entitles us to political rights (e.g. right to vote), civil rights (e.g. right to justice) and social rights (e.g. relationships within the nation). Citizenship is also a crucial feature of our identity, of who we are. Hence, is the boundary between life and non-life, drawn by geontopower, still pertinent in this case?

One may answer that Sophia’s citizenship is a first step towards a more inclusive demos encompassing humans, animals, other living things and non-living things. If non-living entities gain citizenship, politics may become less subject-based as various realities will be considered during the policy-making process. For example, Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”might not be a reference anymore to robots’ programmers. If robots are citizens like any of us, they clearly should not be obliged to obey unquestioningly all orders given by a human-being.

As raised by feminist movements, Sophia has more rights than women and girls in Saudi Arabia.She can walk in the streets with an unveiled head and express herself quite freely on television. At the same time, Saudi women must cover every inch of their bodies, have to be accompanied at all times by a male guardian when they leave their houses and are condemned to silence within their own families. Besides, to be eligible to Saudi Arabian citizenship, Sophia should have converted to Islam which never happened.

This differential treatment implies that, as a robot, Sophia is deemed easier to “control” by the Saudi Arabian state. A change in her computing code allows to change what she says or how she behaves. It is, obviously, impossible to exert such a regulation on flesh-and-blood women, so they are subjected to drastic rules.

If human-beings can dominate Sophia and circumscribe her existence, it creates a two-tier citizenship at the expense of the robot. Indeed, I assume that some of her rights conferred by citizenship may be infringed. For instance, since 2015, Saudi Arabian women have the right to vote. As a citizen, Sophia could vote. But how can we insure that her programmers will not be put under pressure by the Saudi Kingdom to make the robot vote in a certain way? Saudi Arabia is not really known for its democratic practices… Sophia is thus not equal to other citizens in terms of formal citizenship, meaning in her institutional, political and legal status.

On the substantive part of citizenship which highlights ideas of belonging, identity, engagement and solidarity, the result is the same. It appears very difficult for Sophia to feel part of the Saudi-Arabian nation when she is “manipulated” by others and/or has differentiated rights. The political line between life and non-life emphasized by Povinelli is then crucial to understand the relationships between Sophia and the Saudi state.

Riyadh even stressed that bestowing citizenship to Sophia is a way to position the Kingdom as a world leader in technologies and to diversify a collapsing oil-based economy. Non-life is used to fulfill the interests of life; here appears the geontopower.

So why does Sophia’s story matter? I believe it is a strong reminder that our societies are not yet ready to grant rights to machines and that geontopower still has a bright future. However, it can help us to think about how inclusive we want our demos to be in a future where robots will be more and more like us. Instead of depicting artificial intelligence (AI) as humanity’s “biggest existential threat”, a discourse Elon Musk regularly has, thinking about the impact of AI now will allows us to be ready when the line between life and non-life will be made truly insignificant by science.


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