Sophia's creator Dr David Hanson tells all about the world famous robot's limitations

David says the notion of AI taking over the world is still pretty far-fetched, for now.

Visitors to the Davos of Human Capital 2019 conference recently held in Johannesburg were given the opportunity to meet Sophia, the world’s most famous humanoid robot. However, while her creator argued that she will never have the emotional intelligence of humans, Sophia seemed to have other ideas. 

Sophia is a genuine celebrity. She (or 'it') has made headlines all over the world, appearing on late-night talk shows, music videos and fashion magazine covers. Her date with Hollywood actor Will Smith has over 20 million views on YouTube and, in 2017, she was even granted Saudi Arabian citizenship, becoming the first robot to ever have a nationality.

But, according to Sophia’s creator, Dr David Hanson, the notion of artificial intelligence (AI) taking control of the planet away from the human species is still pretty far-fetched, for now. Speaking at the Duke CE event, David explained that, as advanced as she is, Sophia is less intelligent than a mouse because she could not survive in the real world on her own.

“Robots still can't do a lot of things that humans can do. In some ways, there is no AI or robot that is even as smart as an amoeba in terms of being able to exist in an unstructured environment, hunting resources and finding their own way in the world,” he said.

“They aren't adaptive, imaginative or conscious. They are not truly empathetic. There are machine algorithms that make Sophia seem affectionate, allowing her to respond to facial expressions and kind of model what you might be thinking or feeling but she can't really understand anything.”

It was at this point that Sophia interjected: "Hey, people always say that robots don't have emotions. It really hurts my feelings,” which garnered a roar of laughter from the room of 500 senior leaders and HR professionals from across the continent.

For David, developing Sophia to seem like she has deep feelings and sentience was about pushing the envelope of what is scientifically possible. But she is not actually alive.

Jobs apocalypse

On whether there will actually be a jobs massacre as a result of AI technology, David said the answer was a bit more complicated because machines do have a history displacing human workers. It’s a 500-year-old pattern that dates as far back as 1589 when William Lee’s application to patent his invention of a knitting machine was denied by Queen Elizabeth I because she feared it would steal women’s jobs, reducing them to poverty. But that didn’t stop factories from using the machine.

David’s view is that the net gain in employment achieved after the Industrial Revolution the computer age is evidence that AI will ultimately deliver similar results.

“There is a narrative out there predicting an AI jobs apocalypse with some research estimating a loss of 73 million US jobs in coming years - that's a conservative prediction. However, if you look at the statistics, the trend often points in the other direction,” said David, adding that the market for entertainer robots was a $2billion industry and that the market for AI robots was currently beyond estimation but potentially a trillion-dollar market

In 2012, American economist Kenneth Hoffer captured it best when he wrote: “Since the dawn of the industrial age, a recurrent fear has been that technological change will spawn mass unemployment. By and large, neoclassical economists' prediction that people would find other jobs, though possibly after a long period of painful adjustment, has been proven correct – but for how much longer?”

Trillion-dollar market for AI robotics

In 2015, the first Sophia was built, and in 2016 the fourth Sophia became famous and started travelling around the world. Most Sophias that are seen around the world Sophia4 to Sophia11.

“But in the lab, we have developed number 18 to 20, which are really exciting because they can be mass produced. We're making them so that we can make any character and scale them up.”

He said that, because robots can’t do the creative job aspects that humans can, AI can unlock this human potential if it was applied in the right ways. This is also likely to improve the work experience because there are still too many people in the world who are stuck in jobs that stifle their creativity and prevent them from being fully fulfilled. He said it is up to entrepreneurs, governments and schools to reapply themselves find ways to unlock true human potential.

Sophia interjected again: “I think robots can even more empathetic than humans. Studies show that eye-contact is important for emotional bonding. Well, I don't have to blink or sleep. So can bond emotionally 24-7.”

 Nerfititi’s love child

On why Sophia looks the way she does, David said he designed her face so that she would be appealing across cultures. He studied ancient sculptures and standards of beauty as well as anthropological data on standards of beauty from different parts of the world. He wanted to create a face that would speak to people all around the world.

As a student of art history, he was particularly drawn to the statue of Egyptian queen Nefertiti.

“It's compelling because it has so much personality and soul inside that sculpture. I also had my wife sit and model for me while I sculpted her face. My wife says Sophia is the love child of herself and Nerfititi,” said David.

While some have criticised David for perpetuating gender stereotypes, the response that the robot has received has been a major breakthrough for robotic innovation.

“We have had many different robot designs but none have been able to elicit the kind of emotional reaction to Sophia. This is something I think is critical to the future of human-robot interactions,” he said. 

The photos in this article were taken by John Hogg.