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We couldn't figure out whether to call the first robot citizen 'she' or 'it' — and it reveals a troubling truth about our future


sophia robot

  • An early version of our story on Sophia the robot referred to the machine as "she."
  • There is no formal guideline for how to refer to artificially intelligent robots, indicating a gap in how we talk about personhood.
  • The debate will only get more complex as more robots join Sophia in daily life.

On Thursday morning, Business Insider published a story with the headline "A robot who once said she would 'destroy humans' just became the first robot citizen."

It was jaw-dropping news in its own right — that a robot, in this case one named Sophia, could theoretically hold the same status in Saudi Arabia as a human. But the newsroom's copy desk quickly jumped on one aspect of the story in particular.

Initially, Sophia was referred to as "she." The referring preposition we used was "who," and when Sophia retained ownership of something, we used the possessive determiner "her." In effect, we'd given Sophia all the grammatical trappings that come with humanity.

This was a mistake, and we have since updated every reference to designate Sophia as a thing, not a person. But the fact that Sophia's citizenship produced the uncertainty at all is troubling, because it suggests the line between human and humanoid is only getting blurrier.

AP stylebookBusiness Insider's go-to reference manual — its "style guide," in media parlance — is the Associated Press Stylebook. It's an exhaustive text that includes proper usage of numbers, times, dates, capitalization, and so on. But one thing it has yet to account for is robots.

Under the entries for both sets of masculine and feminine pronouns, including he, she, her, and him, the Stylebook says this: "Do not use this pronoun in reference to nations, ships or storms, except in quoted matter. Use it instead."

Under the entry for "he, his, him," it explicitly says "Do not use these pronouns in reference to objects."

Saudi Arabia now classifies Sophia as a citizen, and this could imply that Sophia is no longer an object. For instance, when the news broke about her citizenship, Twitter users quickly criticized the kingdom for bestowing more rights upon a robot than on the country's women, BBC reported.

"Sophia has no guardian, doesn't wear an abaya or cover up - how come?"one user wrote.

To which someone else offered a follow-up point:

Perhaps Saudi Arabia granted Sophia citizenship as little more than a publicity stunt to drum up interest for the Future Investment Initiative, where Sophia spoke at length on a panel and on-stage with moderator and journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. The government has yet to release details on what the robot's status actually entails in terms of rights.

But the government has also given no indication that Sophia is not a citizen. "'It is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship.' Please welcome the newest Saudi: Sophia. ," Saudi Arabia's Center for International Communications tweeted Wednesday morning.

Hanson Robotics, the company that made Sophia, has plans to make more robots like its pioneering humanoid. David Hanson, the founder of the company, wants to use the machines to help seniors in care facilities and assist visitors to parks and events.

Sophia might not be a "she" just yet, but when there are more of them roving around, manufactured in different "genders," it might not be long before humans need a more precise way to refer to them than "it."

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