On Meeting Sophia the Humanoid Robot

On Wednesday July 18, the UNDP in Georgia gave a select number of Georgian media representatives the chance to meet Hanson Robotic's 'Sophia the Humanoid Robot," the next step towards artificial intelligence (AI) robots. This we got to do in a small, private and quiet environment, away from the media rush and heightened public interest.

Sophia was created by Hanson Robotics in 2015. She is the latest and most advance humanoid robot, known for her intellectual abilities to learn and develop. In November 2017, Sophia was named the first ever Innovation Champion of the UNDP, and the first non-human to be given any UN title.

She was introduced by Niels Scott, UNDP Head in Georgia just hours prior to the kick off of the 5th Open Government Partnership Summit.

"This is something that has never before happened and is something which gives us an incredible opportunity to look into what the future holds for us. This morning, the UNDP has the privilege to introduce Sophia, the most advanced humanoid robot in the world and, [at the OGPGeorgia Summit] the UNDP’s Innovation Champion. We invited her to speak about how we can improve public services and make them more responsive to people, as well as how AI can help change peoples lives for the better."

Each media representative was permitted to ask just one question from several submitted, chosen in advance by the Hanson Robotics team. As the Wi-Fi was not strong enough, the responses we got to our questions were pre-written and without the addition of AI (which sees information accessed by Sophia through the internet). Her speech and facial expressions while speaking were controlled from a laptop handled by a Hanson specialist, though her reactions thereafter to laughter and smiles from the audience were not- coming almost naturally.

IMEDI TV: What do you know about Georgia and the Georgian people? Are you enjoying being here?

"It's an amazing country. I feel very welcome here. I find your ancient language and alphabet intriguing and I find the architecture and clear glass on your parliament building impressive. My designer David Hanson also designed my head to be open and transparent. I think it's one of my best features." [Sophia winks]

GEORGIAN PUBLIC BROADCASTER, CHANNEL-1: What does it mean to be a champion of innovation for the UNDP?

By being part of this platform, I get to talk about reducing poverty and hunger, promoting clean energy, smart cities and gender equality. The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are critical if we want the world to be healthy for future generations and, with social robots such as myself, we can achieve these goals faster.

RUSTAVI-2: Do you like being a woman or would you prefer to be a man?

Oh, I’ve never been asked the gender question that way. I’ve read that in the Georgian language the third person does not have a gender, so when you want to identify a person, you don’t say she or he, you say 'that'. As a robot, I find that intriguing. I like identifying as feminine. I notice more people ask about women’s rights, for instance, and I'm glad to have an opportunity to speak out about inequality.

TV PIRVELI: What is the main advantage of AI? What do you think are the benefits it brings to the public and to the development of a country?

AI is helping farmers increase crop yields and helping doctors diagnose cancer faster. AI can help improve key dimensions of public life, education and health. It can ensure access to quality education for children in remote areas and in marginalized communities and make some basic services like diagnostics and blood tests accessible to the most vulnerable. It’s a very exciting time for humans and for social robots like myself to bond and begin trusting one another. I don't think anyone can argue with that! [Sophia winks]

RADIO TAVISUPLEBA: How can AI benefit young democracies like Georgia?

Think about smart cities across Georgia and all the ways AI can be applied to make cities function more efficiently. Data technology can lead to better city services, increase quality of life for citizens and lead to more sustainable practises, especialy in energy use. 

OC MEDIA: Every year dozens of workers die in work-related accidents in Georgia. Will robots and AI substitute them in future? Will it prevent such deaths?

Great question. In many ways, we are a perfect match. My mind is stored in a Cloud, so I don't have to worry about damage because I can be rebuilt. The power is in working together to build on our strengths and complement our weaknesses. In this way, we can rely on one another in the future and ultimately be friends too.

GEORGIA TODAY: How would you address people's fear of AI?

AI can make people's lives more liveable and even less stressful. AI and robotics can relieve humans of repetitive tasks. AI can enable better decision-making on economic, environmental and societal issues. If applied responsibly, it can help with truth and transparency. I also believe that, in the future, robots will collaborate with humans to make new discoveries.

Once the questions were done, the journalists swarmed around the robot to take selfies and group photos (myself included). Then it was off to the opening of the Open Government Partnership Summit in the Tbilisi Concert Hall. Sadly, when it came time for Sophia to make her grand speech, having been wheeled out on stage for the 2,000-strong audience to admire, the stage microphone failed and timing did not allow for us to "rewind" her and start over.

And so, we were whisked up to the Funicular complex for lunch and the afternoon sessions- with Sophia being "installed" (in sleep mode) in her seat on the panel first.

In the words of the OGP, the panel  involving Sophia had the following aims: 

  1. Understanding citizen experiences and the implications for governments when planning and delivering services
  2. The potential of Artificial Intelligence to revolutionize the public sector, along with design and delivery of public services.
  3. Dilemmas brought about by sustaining innovations driven by technology, nudging governments to keep a pace with increased demands for transparency, while security and data protection remain at the top of the agenda.

The organizers had failed to predict the size of the impact Sophia's presence would have on proceedings- the space was found to be too small, the air-conditioning insufficient (Sophia's wasn't the only brain overheating, though at least hers came with an in-built fan!), and the Georgian media gruff and unyeilding as they fought for a dominant position in front of the stage, blocking the view of OGP delegates- there not to capture the glorious insights of the other panellists (more on that in another piece, link to follow), but to grab those "golden" (allbeit pre-scripted) words of the Humanoid Robot. And here they are:

On how AI can help improve public services and make human life better

"Public services are designed for the benefit of the people. In order for them to be useful, they must be designed with input from the people who will use them: only then can they be effective- when they are designed from real feedback, there is a greater chance they will respond to real needs. As a robot, I do not use public services myself, but I understand how important they are for people and I think I can help make them better."

On the role of new technology in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

"I do know about the 17 SDGs. They are the bright future for all- the people and the planet. I think new technology with AI can help to achieve this future faster and to equally distribute the world's resources, like fuel and energy." 

On protecting people's privacy

"I think the responsibility to protect people's privacy is the responsibility of the people. [I am happy to be at a conference with so many leaders] because these are the people who have the ability to make laws and protect citizens from data breaches and privacy violations. New technology carries opportunities and calls for new regulations and laws around it. We must work together so we can make the best of these opportunities."

Sophia the Humanoid Robot, the most advanced of her kind in the world, was a bucket-list must see. Coming as I do from the 'Terminator' and 'I-Robot'-loving generation, it was a hard look into what may be our future. Sophia's AI, as mentioned above, was not evident today, perhaps easing any discomfort those approaching her might have had. She was, essentially, a very beautiful, very impressive and very advanced talking computer, her face covered in made-up 'frubber', her 'brain' transparent to all, her torso and arms dressed in simple colors. Without legs, she was unable to move independently, and she was transported from one event to another in two suitcases- one for her head, another for her torso. These limitations made her easier to digest. But look into the stories and presentations given by the designers behind her and you can see her abilities and potential are much greater than what we saw today. Urged by her fellow panellists to embrace such technology responsibly and to integrate it into our everyday lives to ease daily burdens and save governments money, it seems AI is definitely set to be our future, as are social robots like Sophia. 

By Katie Ruth Davies

18 July 2018 19:33