A robot-run megacity – technological wonder or horror? | Fin24
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A robot-run megacity – technological wonder or horror?

Dec 01 2017 15:01
Lloyd Gedye

In Saudi Arabia, as part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiative, the government is proposing the development of a utopian city on the shores of the Red Sea.

Neom – which is a combination of the Latin neo, meaning new, and the Arabic mustaqbal, meaning future – is envisioned as a city that will be bigger than Dubai; its slogan is “The world’s most ambitious project”. 

It is projected to cost more than $500bn and is imagined as a liberal international trade centre, a business hub with advanced manufacturing, biotechnology and media industries.

As its website proclaims, Neom will be an “aspirational society that heralds the future of human civilisation”. 

Central to this vision are the armies of robots that will be serving the residents of Neom. It is envisioned that there will be more robots than humans.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says the city’s main robot will be named “Neom Robot Number One”. “Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things – everything,” 

Bloomberg reported the prince as saying.

Neom will occupy an area now known as Ras Sheikh al-Hameed, a peninsula jutting about 50km into the Red Sea. 

The total site covers an area of 25 900sqm and will stretch into Jordan and Egypt, with the latter having signed a treaty to give the Saudis two islands essential to the project. 

The area was chosen because of its proximity to international shipping routes. 

Construction is set to begin in late 2019 and phase one is set for completion by 2025.

But it is unlikely that this ambitious project will result in job creation. “It’s not Neom’s duty to create jobs for Saudis,” 

Prince Mohammed said according to the Bloomberg report. “Neom’s duty is to be a world hub for everyone in the whole world.”

While I must admit that I find the idea of a city run by AIs and robots kind of terrifying, this tech is actually already all around us.

Some time ago, an acquaintance told me he had discovered there was an AI software app that could put a number of people at his company out of a job, just like that.

He was disturbed at the idea, knowing it was only a matter of time until his bosses woke up to the cost-saving potential and started retrenching people.

So this idea of a robot underclass is not as science fiction as Neom sounds.

However, the robot underclass is so central to the Neom vision that in October at the inaugural Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, it was announced that a robot named Sophia had been granted Saudi citizenship.

This was the first time an artificial intelligence (AI) robot has been granted citizenship of a nation.

Sophia, who is an AI android from the Hanson Robotics lab in Hong Kong, is modelled on Audrey Hepburn. 

She is said to have 62 facial expressions, she can memorise your face during a conversation and has been described as “chatty” after a journalist interviewed her on stage at the Future Investment Initiative conference.

While many technology advocates would have been excited at the prospect of an AI being granted citizenship, to many Saudi women and migrant labourers working in the kingdom it must have been a slap in the face.

To even conceive of the idea that a robot be given rights in a country where so many humans are denied theirs is a warped vision of the future.

For generations, migrant labourers in Saudi Arabia have been denied citizenship, while women are restricted in terms of employment options and from appearing in public spaces with men.

Women are unable to get a passport or to travel outside the country without the permission of a “male guardian”, which could be a father, husband, brother or son.

Women who have protested this system have been arrested, interrogated and thrown in jail.

In June 2018, Saudi women will be allowed to drive for the first time; however, they may still have to get the permission of their male “guardians” to drive. 

There have been suggestions that this could still be very restrictive, with potential curfews to stop joyriding.

The thought that Saudi Arabia is trumping up its innovation status by granting an AI android citizen status, when it has so much work to do to grant its human citizens equal rights, is distasteful and morally reprehensible.

Sophia, the AI android, may be a world first, but for many women she is just another example of how technology and patriarchy are intimate bedfellows.

This article originally appeared in the 30 November edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

saudi arabia  |  robot  |  artificial intelligence  |  tech