[WATCH] Malta to study whether robots can be granted 'citizenship'

Artificial Intelligence company SingularityNET will be helping the government on a pilot project that will seek to create a test for determining whether AI robots understand their rights and responsibliities as citizens

Sophia (centre), a robot which was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship in 2017, was present at the conference
Sophia (centre), a robot which was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship in 2017, was present at the conference

Robots with artificial intelligence could soon be able to apply for Maltese citizenship after the government unveiled plans for a pilot project that will look to create a test for determining whether robots are able to understand their legal rights responsibilities as citizens.

The pilot project will be undertaken by the Maltese government and the AI company SingularityNET.

The plans were announced on Thursday at the Malta Blockchain Summit, a gather of over 5,000 innovators and investors working in the digital technologies space.

Speaking at a press conference launching Malta's national AI strategy, junior minister for digital innovation Silvio Schembri said that after having successfully enacted a holistic framework regulating distributed ledger technologies, Malta was now looking to do the same with AI.

"We aim to be among the ten countries in the world with a national AI strategy,” he said.

Sophia, a social humanoid robot which was activated in 2016, was present at the conference. Sophia was developed by SingularityNET and was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia in October 2017, making her the first robot in the world to have a nationality.

Schembri stressed that despite the fact that most people thought of robots when they heard the term AI, there was more to the technology.

"Its about the extracting of knowledge from data," Schembri said, adding that machine learning algorithms could be employed to solve complex problems that were previously beyond the reach of humans.

With the sector expected to continue growing in the coming years, Schembri said that Malta was looking to develop, publish and refine, through consultation, a comprehensive and holistic strategy.

Sophia was activated in 2016
Sophia was activated in 2016

"Our DLT regulations were a success because the laws were designed together with stakeholders," Schembri said, adding that any AI regulation would not be a standalone, but would compliment existing digital technology laws.

The strategy, he said, would be looking to define objective and key issues that will need to be tackled.

Schembri said Malta would be focusing on attracting talent from across the globe and on ensuring that the necessary skills are developed locally to sustain the sectors development.

Malta would be investing in basic research, while also offering support to start-ups in the sector.

The strategy, Schembri said, would also be looking into how the technology can be used by the government to offer citizens more, and better services.

He pointed to government plans for robot-assisted surgeries which will be starting next year as an example.

He stressed that the need for a strategy was felt because the government "does not believe in a piecemeal approach.

He explained that a task force, including business representatives, lawyers, academics and a range of different professionals, would be working on the strategy. "We want to adopt a holistic approach that will become a sustainable engine for growth."

Schembri insisted that AI would revolutionise many sectors and would also create other new ones.

As had happened in the communications sector, where Malta has been used to test 5G connectivity, Schembri said the country could seven as a perfect testbed for AI.

Policy on AI ethics

In addition to working on the technology, Schembri said Malta also wanted to enact a policy for ethically aligned and socially responsible AI.

With the newly-launched Malta Digital Innovation Authority already having an ethics committee, Schembri said it was important to understand the "ethical implications and impacts of what is being unleashed".

While a national strategy is formed, Malta will be undertaking a pilot project to explore the possibility of granting AI robots citizenship, together with Singularity NET.

AI scientist and SingularityNET CEO Ben Goertzel said the need for AI research to be an international pursuit, and not just a local one.

He said that it was positive that Malta already had an AI department at the University of Malta and that it was funding start-ups in the sector.

He said he was happy that the country was now looking to up it's game and was impressed by Malta’s interest in citizenship for AI robots.

"If a robot can visibly demonstrate a knowledge of its rights and responsibilities of being a citizen, then there us no reason it shouldn't be one."

He said he was happy to have the Maltese governments cooperation in an endeavour of "potentially historic importance".