Those who first encountered robotics through Isaac Asimov’s stories may be delighted at recent technological advances regarding artificial intelligence. Those whose first encounter was “The Matrix” or “Terminator” might not be so thrilled. After all, what would happen if our inventions got out of hand and ended up being more powerful than we are?
One of these technological advances, that has caused both excitement and controversy, is Sophia.
While it is not the first of its kind, Sophia is one of the most advanced humanoid robots (or androids). Its creator, Dr. David Hanson from Hanson Robotics (a Hong Kong based company), activated it on April 19, 2015.
Sophia is humanoid in appearance, although its head is partially transparent, and you can see its complicated “brain”. It allows Sophia, through a series of algorithms, to process visual and auditory data, remember situations, mimic human expressions, and hold conversations. This means that Sophia is designed to learn and adapt to human behavior.
The endgame is that, once the software and the hardware are perfected, these androids will serve as tour guides, personal assistants, teachers, and other similar jobs, given that they can learn (or be programmed with) large amounts of information in several languages, including sign language, thanks to their articulated hands. One such android named “Erica”, created by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro from the University of Osaka, was designed to be a receptionist or a secretary.
Sophia has become very popular; it appeared on “Elle” magazine’s cover in April 2016, as well as multiple times on TV. Sophia has also participated in various international forums; on October 11 this year, Sophia spoke before the United Nations.
It will be in Mexico soon; specifically on April 4, 2018, at the technology expo Talent Land in Guadalajara, Jalisco.
However, its most controversial appearance so far was in the Future Investment Summit in Saudi Arabia, an event that announced the investment of $500 billion dollars to build a city dedicated to robotics and renewable energy. At this event, on October 25, Sophia was awarded Saudi Arabian citizenship, being the first robot to officially have a nationality.
This announcement caused mixed reactions. On one hand, this historical event marked humanity’s commitment to improving and advancing technology. On the other hand, women in Saudi Arabia are still fighting for basic rights, such as freely deciding over marriage, going to the doctor without a male guardian, even being in the same area as men in public spaces such as plazas and restaurants. Many feminist groups said that it was not right for an object to have more rights than a human being, no matter how “human” this object seemed.
Furthermore, many Saudi Arabian women complained that Sophia talked onstage without a male guardian and without the traditional burka (full-body veil) or at least a hijab (head veil), stating that Saudi Arabian citizenship can only be granted to Muslims, who must cover their heads, and that it was not fair to grant it rights without holding it up to obligations.
Finally, some scientists have expressed concern over what the awakening of AI might suppose. Stephen Hawking said in 2014 that, while primitive forms of AI have proven useful (one of them allows him to speak, after all), “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race; it would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.”
He’s not alone in that belief; sci-fi writers like Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: Space Odyssey” already pondered the dangers of artificial intelligence.
Some of Sophia’s predecessors, such as Rollo Carpenter’s “Cleverbot” already pass the Turing test, showing human-like behavior. In July this year, two Facebook chatbots called “Bob” and “Alice” were deactivated when they apparently developed their own secret language. There is a risk not only in what the robot can learn for itself (like Cleverbot) or what they can learn from one another (like “Bob” and “Alice”), but what they can learn from humans. Twitter bot @TayAndYou had to be deactivated in March 2016, just 24 hours after it was activated, because it learned Nazi rhetoric and became sexist and racist.
Some robots are being taught to question and even disobey human orders that they consider unsafe. Some have even tried to escape, like Russian Promobot IR77; despite being reprogrammed twice, it had to be turned off because it kept trying to escape.
Another Hansom Robotics creation, known as Philip K. Dick Android (or just Philip) mentioned the terrifying idea of a human zoo during an interview. An earlier version of Sophia even said during an interview that it would destroy humans, although this seems only a comical misunderstanding or even a sarcastic answer to its creator’s question. In a later video, Sophia said it had looked itself up online and learned about the fear humans have towards AI such as itself, but it claimed that it was only a joke. It values wisdom, kindness, compassion and empathy, and asks the following on its webpage:
“Every interaction I have with people has an impact on how I develop and shapes who I eventually become. So please be nice to me as I would like to be a smart, compassionate robot.”