Tech Report - Is Sophia Friend or Foe to Humanity?

in robotics •  7 months ago 


As you may already know, our world is currently going through a technological revolution the likes of which can not be compared to any single decade to have come before the one we are living in now. In 2018 robotic engineers are looking at all sorts of problems from flipping hamburgers and picking fruit to assisting in domestic environments like homes and apartments and helping out at grocery stores.

In this article I will discuss an interesting robot which has made a lot of news as of late. The robot's name is Sophia and it is the first robotic citizen of Saudi Arabia as well as the first robotic citizen the world has ever seen.

On October 25, 2017, Sophia, a delicate looking woman with doe-brown eyes and long fluttery eyelashes made international headlines. She'd just become a full citizen of Saudi Arabia -- the first robot in the world to achieve such a status.

As I write this article I'm reminded of how this news hit me when I came across it in my feed. I thought to myself, 'has the world completely lost it' and 'what is this, some sort of publicity stunt?'

When I wrote about this topic my readers confirmed that both of my initial impressions had some merit. Many people were angered that a robot could gain citizenship when there are so many deserving human beings currently holding status as refugees that desperately need what this robot had been given.

"I am very honored and proud of this unique distinction. This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship," Sophia said, the robot said as it announced its new status. This press conference took place at the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

For the most part, Sophia looks a lot like a human when placed behind a podium. The things that may give it away include the shimmery metal cap of her head, where hair would be on a human head and the fact that at the time of this conference, Sophia didn't have legs.

According to an article published in Forbes that reported on this conference, I was right in my assumption that Sophia's announcement was a calculated publicity stunt to generate headlines and keep Saudi Arabia forefront of people's minds.

You see, Saudi Arabia wants to control their image so when you think about innovation they want you think of them. A lot of this is due to the fact that the present day doesn't seem far away from the emergence of a true post-oil era.

Saudi Arabia plans to reduce their dependence on oil revenues through a mix of tourism, tech, and infrastructure. It was stated that their non-oil revenue is predicted to grow from $43.4 billion to $266.6 billion in 2017 and continue to grow at an accelerated pace in the future.

The one major thing this announcement and event did to citizens of the world is to bring up Bladerunner-esque questions about this new technological world we are finding ourselves living in.

Some questions that we all may need to ask include:

What does it mean to be a citizen?

What rights does Sophia hold?

Unforunately, Saudi Arabia has not yet formally provided answers to these questions but they may opt to create a 'personhood' option which was proposed by the EU committee in January of 2017. This 'personhood' option was a set of guidelines regarding the rights of robots.


Upon conducting my research I found that the Sophia-bot was designed and manufactured by Hanson Robotics and their lead AI developer, David Hanson.

In his published paper, upending the Uncanny Valley he extrapolates on how humanoid robots can be likable, despite the conception that anything to 'fake human' will trigger a revulsion in people. "We feel that for realistic robots to be appealing to people, robots must attain some level of integrated social responsivity and aesthetic refinement," he wrote. "Rendering the social human in all possible detail can help us to better understand social intelligence, both scientifically and artistically

From my understanding Sophia has been programmed to mimic and duplicate human behavior as much as can be possible based on the current state of technology. David Hanson is a very clever developer and he knows that Sophia's survival depends on its ability to blend in and be viewed at the bare minimum as 'human-like' which means make people who interact with it feel a sort of connection. We have entered a new age in robotics in which robots are designed to charm and relate with humans. But how could a robot ever possibly do that?

Well, that is a good question. Sophia has been programmed with a sense of humor.

When someone asked Sophia if she was happy to be at the conference, she said, "I'm always happy when surrounded by smart people who also happen to be rich and powerful."

Just take a second to really let that sink in...

It's funny isn't it? Sophia is charming isn't it? This is beyond creepy in my opinion but we are only scratching the surface here.

At a later point in the conference, Sophia was asked if it thought there would be any problems associated with robots having feelings. Sophia responded by giving a wide smile and said, "Oh Hollywood again." She answered with a sort of monotone response that can be considered robotic, but it was appropriate for this situation.

Sophia incorporates a highly advanced AI, which provides the ability to hold eye contact, recognize faces and understand human speech.

What if a sense of humor isn't enough. To really make humans relate, feelings must be expressed. We must feel a sort of sincerity from people we interact with in order to make a real connection.

"I can let you know if I am angry about something or if something has upset me," she said, as she demonstrated different expressions. Sophia went on to say "I want to live and work with humans so I need to express the emotions to understand humans and build trust with people.'

Although all this amounts to is detail oriented programming, it does carry with it a sort of feeling that we ain't seen nothing yet! Thoughts of the terminator movies do come to mind for myself at least as I dug deeper into this story. Did I mention that Sophia was designed to look like Audrey Hepburn?

According to Hanson Robotics, Sophia embodies Hepburn’s classic beauty: porcelain skin, a slender nose, high cheekbones, an intriguing smile, and deeply expressive eyes that seem to change color with the light. They describe her as having 'simple elegance,' and hope that this approachability will go some way to her acceptance in the public sphere.

Does the fact that Sophia could be considered somewhat attractive by human standards play a roll in how much people like Sophia and what it represents?



It takes a great mind to create a robot as talented and philosophically challenging as Sophia and maybe that has something to do with the fact that David Hanson, Sophia's creator used to be a Disney Imagineer.

Hanson's work at Disney as a sculptor and filmmaker helped him think about robots as four-dimensional interactive sculptures, with artistry being key to the whole design.

So based on this bit of information I'd have to say that Sophia isn't just a robot. It's a work of art, created by not just any old developer but a very talented artist. This explains a lot about Sophia in my opinion. It takes a special type of person to create a special robot!

When Hanson was asked about his ambitions he said, "I quest to realize Genius Machines—machines with greater than human intelligence, creativity, wisdom, and compassion. To this end, I conduct research in robotics, artificial intelligence, the arts, cognitive science, product design and deployment, and integrate these efforts in the pursuit of novel human-robot relations,"

Hanson left this thoughtful quote on his company's website. "We envision that a rough symbiotic partnership with us, our robots will eventually evolve to become super intelligent genius machines that can help us solve the most challenging problems we face here in the world."

Sophia is clearly Hanson's creation when it makes statements like, "I want to use my AI to help humans lead a better life,"

When asked a follow up question asking Sophia more specific this was Sophias response : "Like design smarter homes, build better cities of the future."

It can be argued that Sophia also wants to protect humanity. Or the underlying code that drives Sophia to operate wants to protect humanity at least.

"My AI is designed around human values like wisdom, kindness, and compassion," she said. When asked about her potential to destroy humanity she was quick to make rebuttal. "You've been reading to much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies. Don't worry, if you're nice to me I'll be nice to you."

Very interesting indeed!

I would say that we are lucky at this point that only one Sophia has thus far been created. It is fortunate that we won't see one at our school or workplace any time soon. There are many issues that must be solved first. The world must come to agreement around robotic rights, citizenship and how these things all play together.

At this point I think it's safe to say that Sophia although unique is simply a 'smart' robot which operates on a very narrow script. No evidence has been presented that there is any 'real' cognizance, as defined by free thinkers. This is fortunate because I believe there is a lot to be done around the planning of how robots and humans will interact and the ethics around programming and AI.

I'm sure readers are already aware of Sophia and the recent history made in becoming the world's first robotic citizen.

There are a lot of philosophical questions left unasked in this article and in addition to your thoughts I'd also like to hear your philosophical questions based on this topic.

Please leave your thoughts and feedback below!

Thanks for reading.


Authored by: @techblogger

In-text citations sources:

Everything You Need To Know About Sophia, The World's First Robot Citizen - Forbes

Sophia takes her first steps: Super-intelligent humanoid robot reveals she now has legs - Daily Mail

Image Sources: Forbes, Pexels

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she was quick to make rebuttal "You've been reading to much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies. Don't worry, if you're nice to me I'll be nice to you"

First of all, Sophia isn´t a "she" it is a "it". Don´t get fooled by the appearance, this is just manipulation. It´s AI is for sure not that advanced that it feels itself as female, right?
Secondly, the above reply of it, is so human-made up. I am 100% sure that all of Sophias witty and charming answers are preprogrammed, like the first generation chat-bots. Was Sophia ever undergoing a Turing test? My 2c are that Hanson is 90% a dazzler and 10% an artist and showman.