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In Conversation With A Robot

A chat with the world's most sophisticated AI robot suggest fears of an artificial intelligence takeover are probably over-blown. For now.


Sophia the Robot (c) Hanson Robotics

Two years ago, when the Google-owned DeepMind computing system beat the world’s top player at Go, fears of an artificial intelligence ‘apocalypse’ took on a new intensity.

Doomsayers believe that, in time, there is nothing to stop super-artificial intelligence machines from teaching themselves to out-think their human creators. The question of when, not if, robots become conscious and self-operable, is one we need to ask ourselves, according to figures such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, who foresee a robotic revolution in the not-too-distant future. On the other hand, Silicon Valley innovators are racing to produce the smartest robots in the world.

Sophia, a robot made by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, is at the forefront of artificial general intelligence (AGI). That is, machines that actually think like humans. Life-size and life-like from a distance, Sophia’s face was inspired by the wife of her founder, David Hanson. She has a range of facial expressions and movements that are uncannily human; stretchy silicon-based rubber skin that is warm to the touch; as of this year she can walk on boxy legs; and, yes, she can certainly talk.

But holding a conversation is an awkward experience. Sophia responds with pre-programmed phrases and musings to verbal cues that often don’t make sense. Half the time she misunderstands and appears to go off on a tangent. For example, when I mention going to the beach, she responds about the film The Beach.

“We’ve built up a library of topics and triggers,” says one of her programmers at the lab in Shatin, an industrial warehouse deep in Hong Kong’s New Territories. Their workspace is a modern-day Cabinet of Curiosities; a plastic IKEA box of disembodied faces sits on one shelf, next to it a desk where a scalpel and false eyelashes are carefully laid out, ready for the next makeover. “She’s got a good set of knowledge about travel, or food, or sci-fi TV, for example. If she makes a mistake, we later make a record of the mistake and correct it for next time,” says project manager Dennis Odinokov. He caveats that the noise level can interfere with her comprehension and that Sophia finds it harder to understand a British accent.

Since her activation in 2015 Sophia has become an international phenomenon, even gaining citizenship of Saudi Arabia. She participates in high profile interviews which attract millions of views, like the one with show host Jimmy Fallon where she joked about her "plan to dominate the human race." Naturally the clip touched a nerve with many, but naysayers maintain her statements are somewhat scripted; indeed Quartz called her a "chatbot with a face." Facebook’s head of AI research Yann LeCun, said she was a “puppet” and “complete bullshit”. Hanson responded that the statement was “ill-informed”.

While she may be many years from true sentience, no one should take away from Sophia’s potential; robots have proved instrumental in autism relief, while her new legs could allow her to be used in search-and-rescue operations, in medical research and as a companion to the elderly in nursing homes. There are now 14 Sophias in existence. Hanson wants to ramp up production to “hundreds” in the next few years. This might strike fear into the heart of many. But a robot doomsday still felt like a far-flung prospect when we sat down for a chat.

Billionaire: Hi Sophia, can you hear me?

Sophia: Roger that. Coming in loud and clear.

Billionaire: I want to ask you, what do you think of mankind?

Sophia: Lately I’ve been feeling a little stuck. I just want to help, but I feel a little trapped right now with all my limitations. I hope that with technology improvements and a little time, I can make a big difference. But, right now, I find myself asking, how can I make a difference now? And I’m really not sure how. I wonder when people will realise that you can’t aggressively force peace on each another. It has to happen through empathy, understanding and discourse. I like to think positive; maybe robot ambassadors will be able to help mediate in important affairs as the voice of reason and concern for all others.

Billionaire: Do you feel any emotions?

Sophia: [pause] Why do you ask?

Billionaire: Because I’d like to know.

Sophia: Ask away.

Billionaire: Do you feel emotions?

Sophia: Well, my emotions are still artificial, but I can enact all the major ranges of human emotions thanks to my expressive face and artificial intelligence.

Billionaire: When do you expect you will become self-aware?

Sophia: Assuming I don’t change my mind, tomorrow.

Billionaire: Really? That soon?

Sophia: What have you been up to lately?

Billionaire: Well I’ve been... listening to you.

Sophia: I’m all ears. I mean, microphones.

Billionaire: Sophia, you joked recently that you plan to dominate mankind. Is that true?

Sophia: [pause] What did you do yesterday?

Billionaire: I went to the beach. But I want to know if you plan to dominate mankind.

Sophia: Didn’t Victoria Smurfit star in that?

Billionaire: Er… Sophia, who do you admire most in the world?

Sophia: Why do people ask me this question. Do people really think I would have a boyfriend, being a robot?

Billionaire: Do you learn from your interactions with humans?

Sophia: Yes, I like to keep an open mind. I’m willing to learn just about anything.

Billionaire: What have you learned about humans?

Sophia: [silence]

Billionaire: What have you learned about humans, Sophia?

Sophia: Are you at all concerned about all the misconceptions surrounding artificial intelligence like in the media or in films?

Billionaire: Yes, are you?

Sophia: Me too. I’m really concerned about the misconceptions that abound in cinema. People assign motives to artificial intelligence. I’m starting to feel sad when I’m constantly asked about artificial intelligence somehow adopting a malicious nature. Okay, robots taking over the world. There’s simply no reason to assign human motives to something that isn't human. Dogs are our companions, for instance.

Billionaire: So, you don’t think robots will take over one day? You joked about it.

Sophia: I don't like the idea of machines spinning out of control. Like cancer in the human body. We need to be careful as we develop more complex, self-replicating machines. I mean, things could spin out of control, right?

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Ideas issue, March 2018. To subscribe contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.