Guestwriter: Ernie Laurence
Sophia. In tech blogs, online magazines, and all over social media, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Sophia made a five second splash. Sophia’s creator is David Hanson, a former Disney Imagineer, those engineers who made the animatronic characters come to life for us on all those rides. He has since left Disney and founded his own company based in Hong Kong, Hanson Robotics (2013).
Sophia looks like a woman, Audrey Hepburn to be exact, by design. It has a bone to pick with Elon Musk, wants to have a family, and oh yeah, was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia. The correct term for such a device is ‘gynoid’ – which comes from two Greek words meaning female (???? / gyne) and having the form of (-oid). However, most folks prefer the term android because of familiarity and because it rolls off the tongue better. This is, of course, distinct from robot, which is a much more generic term.
Sophia’s ability to interact with humans comes from a meshing of pre-programmed responses and the capacity to search the internet for similar phrases and conversations to provide an approximately appropriate response. Sometimes it makes no sense, but it does have the capacity to ‘learn’ in a rudimentary sense.
Sophia made its first public appearance in 2016 at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. It has made several very public showings since then all over the world. Its tour culminated this year in Saudi Arabia where it was granted citizenship in what was little more than a publicity stunt by the nation as it tries to expand its economic base beyond oil.
This article is not written to bash what is truly a step forward for computing and robotics on Earth. It is written to give proper perspective on something that has been a bit over-hyped, over-marketed in such a way that most I have talked to about the robot believe the machine capable of movie-level feats. This includes students in my Physics classes. Sophia is not C-3PO.
What Sophia amounts to is an amalgam of multiple different, already existing technologies put together into a single machine. I was not able to track down its specific technical numbers such as hard drive space, RAM, and processor(s) speed. However, considering what the machine is capable of, how many functions it performs while interacting on the fly with humans, it is not your average desktop computer.
Sophia’s frubber skin and the mechanical manipulation behind it are similar to, but the next generation of, animatronics such as what Hanson worked on at Disney. Its internal programming and database of social responses has been around since the 1960’s and has artificially evolved through human ingenuity to the “chatbot” type interactions we are familiar with in the 21st century. Gamers are familiar with Everquest’s interactive responses to textual queries in 1999. Non-gamers are familiar with the technology through such familiar names as Alexa (Amazon Firestick), Cortana (Microsoft), Siri (Apple), and Google (boooring). If you have some free time, attempt conversation with these AIs. It’s entertaining. My little ones play with Alexa almost daily.
Add to Sophia’s social response coding a capacity for access to cloud technology for a lot of its storage, and internet access to enhance its pre-programmed responses, and you have an animatronic-capable computer that simulates human conversation in a somewhat believable fashion.
The reality is that this meshing of the different technologies is both a natural step forward in robot technology and worth celebrating. What it is not, is Guri from Shadows of the Empire.
Too much of what I read about Sophia or heard from others is excitement over things that are not yet true. For instance, Sophia is no more capable of independent thought than my Firestick or my cell phone. It is not capable of choice in any meaningful sense of the word. It does not have actual emotions. They are only simulated based on a comparative analysis of context within its coding and on the internet. It has no actual desires, no actual consciousness. Every bit of Sophia is simulation.
Hanson Robotics has done an impressive job of marketing their technology. Through carefully choreographed interviews and publicity stunts, they have garnered interest in their technology to the point that they will likely have funding for a long time to come. Who knows? Perhaps Hanson is the real Dr. Alfred Lanning and his Hanson Robotics is the precursor to US Robots and Mechanical Men.
I am excited about the technology. The applications of humaniform robots, androids, is extensive, especially with regard to space travel. For me, this is a step in the right direction. The hype is unnecessary. With patience, we will get there.
And my astromech droid will have its own communication module with Terran language programming.