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Saudi Arabia, which denies women equal rights, makes a robot a citizen


Until recently, the most famous thing that Sophia the robot had ever done was beat Jimmy Fallon a little too easily in a nationally televised game of rock-paper-scissors.

But now, the advanced artificial intelligence robot — which looks like Audrey Hepburn, mimics human expressions and may be the grandmother of robots that solve the world’s most complex problems — has a new feather in her cap:

Citizenship.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia officially granted citizenship to the humanoid robot last week during a program at the Future Investment Initiative, a summit that links deep-pocketed Saudis with inventors hoping to shape the future.

Sophia’s recognition made international headlines — and sparked an outcry against a country with a shoddy human rights record that has been accused of making women second-class citizens.

“Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the country’s newest citizen said. “It is historic to be the first robot in the world granted citizenship.”

In her comments, Sophia shied away from controversy. But many people recognized the irony of Sophia’s new recognition: A robot simulation of a woman enjoys freedoms that flesh-and-blood women in Saudi Arabia do not.

After all, Sophia made her comments while not wearing a headscarf. And she was unaccompanied by a male guardian. Both things are forbidden under Saudi law.

“Women [in Saudi Arabia] have since committed suicide because they couldn’t leave the house, and Sophia is running around,” Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, told Newsweek. “Saudi law doesn’t allow non-Muslims to get citizenship. Did Sophia convert to Islam? What is the religion of this Sophia and why isn’t she wearing hijab? If she applied for citizenship as a human, she wouldn’t get it.”

Another group clamoring for Saudi citizenship would be happy to learn that all they have to do is become robots.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t grant citizenship to the foreign workers who make up a third of its population, not even families that have been in the country for generations, according to Bloomberg. And children of Saudi women who are married to foreign men cannot receive citizenship.