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Above: Sophia is the world’s first robot citizen in Saudi Arabia

With the creation of the first robot citizen and AI-powered virtual politician, will the rights and duties of humans be transferred to them too? 

~By Justice Bhanwar Singh and Dr NK Bahl

Everybody knows that human rights are available only to human beings. But we have to keep pace with changing science and technology. The cases of Sophia and SAM have triggered a new jurisprudence in human rights. While Sophia is the world’s first robot citizen in Saudi Arabia, SAM is the first AI-powered virtual politician from New Zealand.

The creation of both these entities has led to the question of whether a robot can claim rights which are available to a citizen. If a robot is ready to contest elections in New Zealand, it will become a parliamentarian if elected. Robots can also claim human rights in countries like Saudi Arabia which has given citizenship to robot Sophia.

Under our constitution, certain rights are available to citizens only, whereas other rights are available to every person, be it a citizen or a non-citizen. Citizens are entitled to the Right to Equality which means that there will

be no discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; equality of opportunity in matters of public employment; freedom of speech and expression; to assemble peaceably and without arms; to form associations or unions; to move freely throughout the territory of India; to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business, and so on.


On October 26, 2017, Saudi Arabia gave citizenship to a female humanoid robot, named Sophia. So, can Sophia now claim all those rights available to citizens of that country? Can she claim robot rights or electronic rights in the coming days? This is a moot question. Some are of the opinion that it is ridiculous to grant citizenship to a robot, whereas others say that the spectrum of human rights is going to expand.

Sophia was built by the Hong Kong-based company, Hanson Robotics, in 2015. The inventor, David Hanson, claims that the robot is imbued with artificial intelligence and can recognise faces. The robot’s silicon face can mimic 62 facial expressions. Sophia is supposedly modelled on the late actress Audrey Hepburn. Hanson described Sophia as having “porcelain skin, a slender nose, high cheekbones, an intriguing smile and deeply expressive eyes”.

Coming to SAM, this political robot is ready to contest elections in 2020. It will usher in a new era in politics as elections will not be by people, but by robots. Scientists in New Zealand devised a robot imbued with the qualities of an artificially intelligent politician who can answer questions on issues like housing, education, immigration, policies, etc. New Zealand-based entrepreneur Nick Garritson created this virtual politician. One wonders if, as a legislator, SAM will make laws for humans and interfere with their rights.


This is not the first time that the rights of humans have been given to non-humans. A New Zealand river, Whanganui, and the river Ganges too were granted the same legal rights as human beings. In the first case, the local Maori tribe of Whanganui won a legal battle and a law to this effect was passed in New Zealand. A living entity means that if anyone abuses, pollutes or harms the river, the law can take its course just as it would if a human being was harmed.

Five days after the passage of this law, the Uttarakhand High Court on March 22, 2017, granted similar status to the Ganga and the Yamuna. The Director of the “Namami Gange” project was allowed to represent the Ganga. The move could now help in efforts to clean up the pollution in these rivers. Com-plaints can be filed in their names.

The million-dollar question is, if a robot has to file a case in court, how will it be done? How will it select a lawyer? It appears logical that some human being will have to manage its affairs. But if a human has to ultimately manage their affairs, what is the use of conferring such a status on robots? These questions and many more are likely to arise in the coming days.

Robots and rivers are acquiring definite legal status. If robots have any claim over the rights of citizens, they will have to carry out certain duties. They might also have to pay taxes in accordance with the laws of the land if they start earning. After robots and rivers, will mountains, trees and the environment too queue up for similar status?

Justice Bhanwar Singh is a former judge of the Allahabad High Court and is at present Director General, Delhi Metropolitan Education, Noida, while Dr NK Bahl is a former district judge of UP and Professor of Law, Delhi Metropolitan Education, Noida

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