Media and tech darling Sophia, the world’s most famous humanoid robot, came to Azerbaijan and had a short but awkward exchange with President Ilham Aliyev, drawing mirthful reactions from Azerbaijanis.
“Mr. President, I am pleased to meet with you. I came yesterday and Azerbaijan has amazed me. I have seen Baku’s unique architectural style, modern buildings and other technological achievements," Sophia said on October 22, as she met with Aliyev in the southern Azerbaijani city of Imishli. Both were attending the opening ceremony of an ASAN service center, the country's e-government platform.
“Despite your busy schedule you have visited Azerbaijan and it pleases us very much," Aliyev responded in English, adding a pitch for ASAN. “We are opening together with you a new ASAN center. It is also innovation and it reflects our capacity and intention to build up our modern country.”
The animatronic Sophia has become a cultural icon, appearing in a variety of high-profile events around the world expressing vaguely humanoid thoughts. She was in Azerbaijan for a tech conference, Global Influencer Day, where she is a keynote speaker.
The exchange, predictably, was a bit forced, and evoked a good deal of mockery among Azerbaijanis.
Elmar Imanov, a Germany-based Azerbaijani filmmaker, posted a video of the interaction on Facebook with the caption: “Find the robot.”
Activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev noted that Aliyev plugged ASAN – aimed at eliminating corruption in government institutions – as an international model. “Sophia is an intelligent girl, and thinks that if there is no bribe, then how can it be exported to the world as an Azerbaijani brand?” Hajiyev joked in a Facebook post.
After meeting with Aliyev, Sophia gave a brief press conference. “Despite the fact that Azerbaijan is a young country, you are creating innovative projects,” she told reporters. “For me it was an honor to meet with President Ilham Aliyev.”
Some saw Sophia's obsequiousness as appropriate for the context. “The poor robot knows that the only way to survive in Azerbaijan is to praise," said one Facebook user. “We shouldn't be surprised,” another user wrote. “Eighty percent of Azerbaijanis are like robots, they do what they're told.”
Others were skeptical about how she was able to praise Azerbaijan so fulsomely. “She came yesterday. How is it possible that she found some time to go out to see Baku,” Habib Muntezir, one of the co-founders of opposition media platform Meydan TV, told Eurasianet. “Robots can do anything, though, can’t they?"
Aliyev ended the chat with a bit of his own flattery. “You are very smart and beautiful,” Aliyev told Sophia, who responded with a shy smile to the president. Afterwards, as is standard practice with all official meetings, both sides came together to take a photo.
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani journalist.