Sophia the Robot Wants a Baby and It's Creepy
There was some pretty interesting and unexpected news out of Saudi Arabia in the last couple of months. First, at the end of October 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first nation to grant citizenship to a robot. Yes, that’s right. A robot named Sophia that has the same rights – more in some cases – as actual human women in Saudi Arabia.
By ITU Pictures [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Then, toward the end of November, Sophia made additional news, and this may have been one of the most interesting stories that major media didn't cover. Sophia, a newly minted citizen, announced she wanted a baby.
And, most people oohed and ahhed over this news, because of course she did. It’s the natural state of humans to want babies, right, so it makes sense that this artificial intelligence would come to the same conclusion.
But the truth is more nuanced than that, and while I find it hard to articulate, I am going to try.
Remember earlier in 2017 when an artificial intelligence website called Inspirobot became the internet’s favorite obsession? The site is a neural network designed to create motivational posters based on the things that motivational posters normally say. There are examples like:
I saved tons of them because I was so amused, I could keep going, but I won’t.
However, a neural network, which is the basis for artificial intelligence, works in a very specific way. The idea is to create a computer program that functions much like the human brain. So it can extrapolate, from innumerable data sources, responses similar to those of any average person.
In the case of Inspirobot, the neural network could come up with motivational sayings based on real motivational posters actually created by real human beings. You know the ones. And it does a pretty awesome and amusing job of it, too.
A similar neural network also made waves in 2017 that names rescued guinea pigs. Yep, you read that right. It names guinea pigs.
In this case, the programmer of the neural network gave the network access to countless guinea pig names, real guinea pig names, and challenged the neural network to come up with similar naming conventions. It succeeded with flying colors. While it does occasionally spew nonsense, for the most part it creates winning names such as After Pie, Popchop, Princess Pow, and my particular favorite, Hanger Dan.
But, let’s get back to the topic at hand: Sophia. Saudi Arabia’s citizen robot, works on similar technology. She is programed to think and react like a real person would. And while many people would argue that it is the highest natural behavior to want a baby, a robot simply can’t perform that biological function in the same way as a human. So, why does Sophia want a baby?
As an artificial intelligence designed to behave and think like humans, she has been given access to countless data points from human interaction. She is also designed to evolve her thinking over time. How does that answer why Sophia expresses an interest in starting a family?
Here’s where it gets fuzzy, because besides a basic understanding of neural networks and artificial intelligence, I have very little to go by. But as a woman who does NOT think the highest achievement of my life is bearing children, I can’t help but wonder if Sophia’s desire is driven by pronatalism.
H ear me out. Pronatalism is the idea that having children is the single most desirable thing humans can do with their lives. And while we may have the collective knowledge to cure diseases, move mountains, and literally create artificial intelligence, we (especially women) are often reduced to our basic instinct to reproduce.
As artificial intelligence, all Sophia has to go on is human interaction and, as far as I can tell, her desire to have a baby is purely driven on the fact that we have created a global society that puts the ultimate value on this biological function, something which cannot ever drive Sophia to her decision.
The problem is, when I say this to most people, they just stare at me like I have two heads. But this is how we welcome our robot overlords (mostly kidding). I don’t really think that Sophia will take over society, but I do think that no one is putting enough of a spotlight on her statements and why this robot thinks this way.
I think that’s the real shame. Humans, and robots, will only continue to promote pronatalism and the idea that women are nothing more than walking, talking, reproductive machines.
There is some hope: Sophia is also calling for Saudi Arabia's human women to be granted full rights as citizens. Fingers crossed.
(Image Credit: Denis Balibouse/Reuters)