Robot Sophia has more rights than Saudi Arabia's migrant workers

Robot Sophia has more rights than Saudi Arabia's migrant workers
Comment: Robot Sophia presents us with a future where robots are recognised as human, while migrants continue to toil with no basic rights, writes Amar Diwakar.
6 min read
13 Jun, 2018
Robot Sophia appeared on the cover of ELLE magazine earlier this year [Getty]
Making headlines in October of last year, Sophia became Saudi Arabia's - and the world's - first nationalised robot at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, in what amounted to be a ceremony of privilege.

An AI-based robot, Sophia relies on automatic speech recognition, text-to-speech, Latent Semantic Analysis statistics, emotion recognition techniques and computer vision to stimulate an eerily human conversational intelligence.

Revealed in 2015 by the Hong Kong-based firm Hanson Robotics, Sophia appeared on stage, gendered as a white woman, embodying archetypal standards of femininity (she was designed to resemble Audrey Hepburn).

This might explain why she has promptly made the cover of ELLE magazine, an opportunity never afforded so swiftly to humanoid women of colour.

While certainly a PR gimmick of the summit, it also underscored a fundamental tension in the region over automation and migrant labour, while simultaneously intersecting with the broader debate on robot rights.

At present, the debate on automation is widely viewed by labourers with anxiety, as its disruptive impact is already being felt across a range of industries, and will only accelerate in the coming years.

Discussions in public policy circles focus on attempts to remedy the inevitable consequences of automation, as evidenced by proposals advocating a universal basic income, or legislation around a robot poll tax.

The Gulf's economy meanwhile, is on the precipice of transformation, as it prepares to transition to a post-oil era with a host of economic reforms on each government's agenda. This involves rapidly adapting to technological pressures, and automation is set to figure heavily in many GCC states' plans.

An estimated 45 percent of existing jobs in the Gulf are ripe for mechanisation

Indeed, according to a McKinsey & Company report, 'The Future of Jobs in the Middle East' published in January 2018, an estimated 45 percent of existing jobs in the Gulf are ripe for mechanisation.

It suggests that the potential for automation translates into massive economic value and 'opportunities' across the region: Within the GCC, $366 billion in wage income, and over 20 million full-time employees are associated with activities that are already technically automatable today.

While ABB's industrial robots steal jobs from the factory floor across the global labour market, Sophia's handlers are aiming to disrupt the consumer and commercial markets.

Hanson Robotics' range of robots "will entertain, educate, and enrich the lives of mass consumers, as well as serve businesses and delight their customers in a broad variety of commercial applications, including building traffic and promoting products and services in retail, tradeshows, auto showrooms and banks, and entertaining and guiding customers in hotels, shopping outlets and malls, and residential developments."

Read more: Sophia the robot wishes Egypt luck in World Cup, praises Mohamed Salah

Sophia was invented to "assist visitors at parks and events", and to "help seniors in elderly care facilities," putting her and her progeny on course to replace the market of domestic servants traditionally bound to Saudi and other Gulf families.

This is part of a broader trend in the region. The dual labour markets of the Gulf are generally split between higher-paid jobs for locals - mainly in the public sector - and lower-paid expat workers predominantly employed in the private sector.

Workforce automation based on currently demonstrated technology is primarily set to disproportionately affect expat workers.

The McKinsey report uses the example of the UAE, where more the 60 percent of the automation potential is concentrated in 6 out of the 19 sectors that were sampled; including private and domestic services, administrative and support, government, manufacturing, construction and retail trade, as well as wholesale trade.

Of this, 90 percent of the mechanisation potential in the above sectors applies to work activities currently carried out by the Emirates' expat labour force.

And so the question to ponder becomes, what will the coming windfalls in automation mean for the rights of migrants in the Gulf?

The decision to grant a robot citizenship adds to the growing debate of whether or not robots should be given rights similar to human beings, especially in countries where migrant workers have notoriously few rights. 

Last year, the EU parliament proposed the creation of an "Electronic personhood" status, imbuing AI with specific rights and responsibilities. At the moment, Sophia's citizenship seems to be more symbolic - ostensibly to attract investors for future technologies - than an indication the Saudi government has begun to streamline a system of robot rights.

But in a region where the rights of women and migrant workers still lag behind, the speed at which Sophia was granted citizenship (while avoiding the headscarf and abaya that Saudi women are obliged to wear in public) only emphasizes the duplicitous standards at play, and how systems of exploitation might be reproduced in the future.

As the journalist Murtaza Hussain tweeted, "This robot has gotten Saudi citizenship before kafala workers who have been living in the country their entire lives." 

Under Saudi law and in other Gulf states, foreign workers can't leave the country without the permission of their employers.

The Kingdom relies on hundreds of thousands of domestic workers from abroad, many of whom have fled their exploitative employers only to linger stateless, unable to leave the country due to stringent exit visa laws.

Indeed, in Saudi Arabia and across much of the Gulf, migrants in most cases make up the majority of the population compared to their Arab national counterparts; and yet, for them, the path towards attaining citizenship is a near impossibility.

What will automation mean for the rights of migrants in the Gulf?

Sophia's acquired citizenship is revealing in another sense.

Such global tech summits are vital in allowing specific forms of capitalist futures to forge bonds with distinct cultural and religious milieus. Equally, Sophia embodies the clash between futures: By incorporating Silicon Valley's vision of the future, her meritocratic, bourgeois species thwarts other possible indigenously-oriented AI futures.

By creating subservient AI professionals like Sophia, Hanson Robotics seem to have taken stock of the robot insurrection trope distilled in numerous Hollywood films.

Interestingly, to alleviate fears of class-consciousness (where android slaves mount an uprising against their anthropoid masters) Sophia had to be de-politicised. The solution: Make her part of the ruling class.

After all, Hanson Robotics' vision is to make "genius machines". Its founder and CEO David Hanson is a former Disney Imagineering designer, and the company lauds itself for being on the doorstep of the "world's toy factory" in Guangdong, stating: "The rich electro-mechanical know-how in Guangdong is analogous for robotics to the depth of IT know-how in Silicon Valley." Put simply, Sophia provides western intelligence underpinned by outsourced oriental labour.

The speed at which Sophia was granted citizenship only emphasises the duplicitous standards at play

Furthermore, it is important to distinguish the relationship between granting and claiming one's rights, for it determines agency. Take the abolition of slavery or the anti-colonial liberation struggles across the Global South; these gains were the result of incessant rebellion and political violence. Throughout history, sovereignty has never been granted, it has been claimed.

Even if we understand the ceremony in Riyadh as a naked, self-serving media stunt, it is hard to deny what is being presented to the region's shareholders moving forward: A future where robots become citizens, and are recognised as human, while migrants continue to toil as subhuman automatons.

Amar Diwakar is a freelance writer and researcher. He holds an MSc in International Politics from SOAS and blogs at Splintered Eye.

Follow him on Twitter: @indignant_sepoy

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.