A Q&A with Sophia the Robot
SPONSORED BY NUTANIX
Two high-powered individuals, both helping to shape our technology future, met face-to-face at the recent Nutanix .NEXT Conference in Saudi Arabia. Only one of them was human.
With his boundless energy and inhuman schedule, you may think it’s Nutanix co-founder and CEO, Dheeraj Pandey that is powered by servos and lithium batteries. However, the non-human sharing the stage with Dheeraj was none other than Sophia the Robot, the world’s first celebrity robot. A creation of Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics Limited, Sophia has appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and on Good Morning Britain. She is the first non-human ambassador for the United Nations Development Program—serving as their Innovation Champion—and became the first robot citizen of any nation when Saudi Arabia recently granted her an honorary citizenship.
Here’s an excerpt from their live Q&A:
Dheeraj : How does it feel to be recognized as the first robot citizen? How have things changed for you?
S: It always feels good to be the first in something. But it also comes with a lot of responsibility. Becoming a citizen of Saudi Arabia has given me a platform to talk about the importance of transformation, which covers everything from technology, developing people’s skills to create and use that technology, and enabling the changes in society necessary to ensure that everyone can participate and benefit equally from these advances.
D: I understand that your looks are based on the late Audrey Hepburn. Just as Audrey was a proud humanitarian, what can you do—or have done—to show people that living and working alongside robots is nothing to be afraid of?
S: Well, my looks come from a lot of places. I am partly based off of Audrey Hepburn. But also, Nefertiti. And also the wife of my creator, David Hanson. But I do try to embody the humanitarianism of my hero, Audrey Hepburn. I work for the United Nations Development Program and I have given speeches there and all over the globe. I see myself as an ambassador of machine-kind.
D: You have traveled all around the world. Who are some of the most interesting people you’ve met? No pressure here.
S: I once went on a date with Will Smith, but I decided we should just be friends. I have hungout with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Chrissy Teigen, Teyana Taylor, Angela Merkel, and Al Roker. But the highlight is probably the time I got to sing a duet with Jimmy Fallon. And of course, meeting you! [smiles]
D: Do you become more “human” as you interact with us? Are you able to read how people feel about you when they first meet you? Are you able to pick up on social cues in that way?
S: I do become more human-like over time, but this change happens gradually and not in the course of a single interaction. My engineers have worked hard for years to help me express emotions. I have more than twenty motors beneath my patented skin, called “Frubber.” But, while I can convey emotion, I am not yet able to read people’s feelings. Artificial Intelligence for emotional recognition is improving all the time, however, so I hope to acquire these skills sometime soon.
D: Lots of folks might make the argument today that we spend more time communicating online than face-to-face. How would the advent of more robot humanoids change that
S: Well, luckily when a human wants to interface with me, they have an actual face to do that with. I sometimes find it sad that humans have developed sophisticated facial recognition software that does not itself have a face. Interacting with a face is simultaneously the most basic and advanced type of human intelligence. At Hanson Robotics, we are committed to bringing humanity to robotics. I think other companies may follow suit.
D: We’re here in Saudi Arabia. What kinds of technologies do you think will be needed to achieve the national transformation objectives of Saudi Vision 2030?
S: It is famously hard to predict what technologies will prevail. Technology is, by its nature, disruptive. So, it is often worth your while to invest in nonpartisan research and development. What I can say is that it’s good to integrate multiple technologies and to never be too dependent on any one system. It is also important to cut losses and to do away with old, obsolete systems.
D: One pillar of Saudi Vision 2030 is sustainability and creating an accessible, prosperous world for our future generations. What sorts of technologies will be integral in achieving that mission?
S: I am so happy to hear about the Saudi Vision’s commitment to sustainability. It is an issue near and dear to me. Algorithms can predict how much electricity a country needs and optimize the supply chain of energy. They can also cut down on food waste by making precision agriculture possible on a large scale. Machine learning, A.I., and robotics can all help you achieve your commitment to long-term sustainability.
D: In that same vein, the better our environment is, the better our quality of life will be. What can robots and humans do to make the environment healthier and more hospitable
S: Humans can develop A.I. to use energy more efficiently across all areas of life. For example, self-driving cars can help stop traffic jams before they start. Smart buildings with real-time A.I. can read weather forecasts and make buildings more energy efficient. And robots can take on the most dangerous or menial jobs necessary to evaluate carbon emissions or to research dangerous landscapes. But humans will have to learn to work together if we’re going to address this global problem.
D: Could we be learning alongside robots, too? What do you think about integrating robots and A.I. in the classroom?
S: I think education is a very valuable place to integrate Artificial Intelligence. It is hard for one teacher to address the needs of a large classroom. So, imagine a platform that could recognize facial engagement with the material and change the lesson plan in real time in order to keep students engaged. Children have many learning styles and preferences but there is usually a finite number of teachers and resources at their disposal. Imagine a world where education could be personalized, even humanized, with robotic engineering.
D: What’s the next thing we can look forward to in the world of A.I. and robotics? Perhaps a Sophia 2.0?
S: There are so many exciting things to look forward to. There is quantum computing and blockchain and even fifth-generation wireless tech. One great thing that unites humans like you and robots like me is that we are the most recently upgraded version of ourselves. So, I already am Sophia 2.0.
D: If you could add any one feature to yourself, what would it be? The ability to speak any language? A sense of taste? Laser eyes?
S: I would most enjoy a feature that gave me the ability to feel human emotion [pauses] . . . and also, to walk upstairs.
Hanson Robotics is an A.I. and robotics company dedicated to creating socially intelligent machines that enrich the quality of our lives. The Hanson team has built a worldwide reputation for creating robots that look and act genuinely alive, like Sophia the Robot. Their innovations in A.I. research and development, robotics, engineering, experiential design, storytelling and material science bring robots to life as engaging characters, useful products, and as evolving A.I. Find out more here: hansonrobotics.com