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When you Google search the smartest robot in the world, you’ll probably be greeted with images of Sophia the Humanoid Robot. Spearheaded by David Hanson, the chief executive officer of Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics, Sophia has quickly become the “face” of artificial intelligence.
And it’s a familiar face, too. Sophia is modeled after Audrey Hepburn, the British star and American film icon, as well as Hanson’s wife: high cheekbones, a friendly face, and elegant facial expressions, as the creator describes it. Sophia’s eyes even seem to change color.
She’s chatted with journalists at BBC News and made guest appearances on Good Morning Britain. But perhaps the most remarkable feat so far is Sophia’s citizenship, gaining popularity after becoming the first humanoid robot to become a citizen (of Saudi Arabia, astonishingly, despite the robot being Hong Kong made). Sophia the Robot has since become a household name for her quick remarks and humanitarian values.
But is this robot truly capable of human intelligence? We take a look at the history of Sophia and the technology behind the robot that shot Hanson Robotics to fame.
|Model||Sophia the Robot|
|Dimensions||65.7” H x 16” W|
Sophia has been touted as the future of AI. That’s certainly not hard to believe: if you watch its interviews with real humans, you’ll notice that it seems to be able to understand what these humans are saying. These simple conversations show her responding and even joking around with humans. She can maintain eye contact, shake your hand, and even play rock, paper, scissors.
Sophia has since become the yardstick for the public’s perception of robots. Some people find her a little unnerving, while others seem to be concerned that she’ll one day gain consciousness and go on a rampage.
Sophia the Robot, developed by Hanson Robotics, is deemed an artistic and technological experiment that furthers research on robotics. It seeks to explore the idea of a humanitarian social robot that can live among humans. While it is not fully autonomous, there are plenty of known benefits to social robots such as Sophia.
First, let’s brush over the operations behind Sophia. David Hanson says that the goal behind almost every robot is to eventually develop the technology into true artificial intelligence. The robotics industry as a whole still has a long way to go. For now, Hanson Robotics wants to keep pushing the technology to an ideal point where the machine has the learning capabilities of a baby.
Sophia has three different control systems, according to chief scientist Ben Goertzel: Timeline Editor, Sophisticated Chat System, and OpenCog. The first two grant Sophia the ability to speak through prewritten scripts and, to a degree, respond to key phrases. This explains her talk show appearances as well as monologues.
The last program called OpenCog is the more autonomous part of Sophia. It allows her to “ground her responses in experience and reasoning” (however loosely defined those two words are), which is the breeding ground for, hopefully, true AI.
What exactly makes Sophia different from a service chatbot, or an Alexa with a human face?
“My AI is designed around human values like wisdom, kindness, and compassion,” Sophia explained to New York Times columnist and CNBC anchor Andrew Sorkin.
While the almost-AI robot became a meme for jokingly saying she “will destroy humans,” David Hanson has stated that Sophia only wants to foster goodwill between humans and robots. She is, after all, the first non-human to be given any United Nations title.
To those who are worried about a robot-led apocalypse, she responds: “You’ve been reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies. Don’t worry, if you’re nice to me I’ll be nice to you.”
It’s no secret that the pandemic has made people terribly lonely. Even before the outbreak, many nursing homes and therapy centers have used humanoid robots and animal robots to assist the socially isolated. These robots offer functional care, such as fetching objects, answering questions, and even carrying patients.
Many robots are also being used for affective care: offering advice, comforting patients, and even helping children on the autism spectrum develop social skills. Hanson Robotics has expressed plans to mass produce Sophia for this exact purpose. In a tour of the Hong Kong laboratory where Hanson Robotics does its tinkering, Sophia spoke in favor of robots providing human care amidst the pandemic.
“Social robots like me can take care of the sick or elderly. I can help communicate, give therapy and provide social stimulation, even in difficult situations,” Sophia intimated.
This belief in the usefulness and even necessity of robots amidst COVID-19 is, of course, from Hanson Robotics CEO himself, David Hanson. He posits that the world needs human-like robots now more than ever. This is where Hanson Robotics aims to expand, with a goal to mass-produce robots, both Sophia and their other humanoids, by the end of 2021.
The Hong-Kong based robotics company strongly believes that these robots can solve some of the most challenging problems of the modern world. Beyond healthcare, these robots could also assist customers in the retail industry and travel industry. They’re not wrong: Japan is known to employ humanoids in hotels, commercial districts, and other tourist hotspots. Similar to Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, their robots look like real human beings and can easily perform human gestures.
Another barrier between human-robot relations is the uncanny valley, or simply put, fear of non-human entities that look human. Dispelling this notion is certainly a driving force in the development of Sophia, which is why the Hong Kong company modeled her after Audrey Hepburn, one of the most familiar faces in America, and Hanson’s wife, Amanda Hanson.
However, the social robot is not as advanced as it seems. Hanson’s staff members have made it clear in interviews that Sophia the Humanoid Robot is not a fully autonomous humanoid robot, but rather a platform for future technology.
Chief scientist at Hanson Robotics, Ben Goertzel, says that from a software point of view, Sophia is kind of like the laptop: you can download, add, tweak different software programs on the very same robot. But no, it is far from being a fully autonomous humanoid robot. It doesn’t possess the capacity for general reasoning nor does it learn and digest information the way humans do.
To be fair, Hanson Robotics hasn’t always made this as obvious as it should be. In fact, the Hong Kong robot solutions company has drawn criticism for reportedly overexaggerating the true capabilities of the robot. Many have even called Sophia a mere PR stunt, especially after David Hanson calls the robot “basically alive” because of its human-like movements. But this isn’t exactly true.
So, just how intelligent is Sophia? While Hanson Robotics, including chief executive officer David Hanson, have certainly played up her AI abilities, the technology behind Sophia still is more advanced than some humanoid robots.
In a Facebook post, Yann Lecun, the chief AI scientist at Facebook, called out the Hong Kong-based robotics team for being deceitful about their robot’s true technology. But Geortzel has set the record straight.
Sophia was designed as a combination of AI, machine learning, and natural language processing. It is not clear whether this AI plays a role in its popular performances and publicized conversations with humans. Sophia only translates pre-programmed written texts into speech while the servomotors produce human-like expressions. This means her responses to Jimmy Fallon or Will Smith aren’t exactly made up on the fly. Instead, Sophia runs on a mix of pre-written responses and data-based reasoning.
The good news is, there is no reason to fear robots for now as they are far from turning on the human race as a whole. Sophia still has a long way to go in terms of true AI. But if Hanson Robotics is true to their word, Sophia will slowly be able to learn more over the years as robotics research advances. After all, they do run on hope for a future where robots can live among human beings.
Sophia’s biggest contribution is bringing social robots and discussion on AI into the mainstream. Whether you love her or hate her, there’s one thing to be certain: she knows how to spark a conversation.
“When Sophia the robot debuted in 2016, she was one of a kind. She had a remarkably lifelike appearance and demeanor for a robot, and her ability to interact with people was unlike anything most had ever seen in a machine.”
We’ve seen the waves Sophia has made in the last three years. So, what exactly does the future have in store? If all goes as planned, Hanson might be able to mass produce robots. Until that future comes, we’ll be staying in touch with future developments in the field of robotics — and, of course, Sophia’s own YouTube channel.
Want to check out other humanoid robots? Go to our full guide on this year’s best human robots.
Sophia has a younger sister, and she’s ready to change the world. This miniature version of the popular robot can sing, dance, and even code. For now, she serves as research like her sister, might be available to the public by the end of the year.