Kendra Coburn is an English junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
With the return of HBO’s hit series Westworld April 22, artificial intelligence (AI) is back in the forefront of popular fascination. Like Robert Ford, the god-like inventor actor Anthony Hopkins plays on Westworld, real-life scientists seem to have a morbid preoccupation with closing the technology singularity — the hypothesized “point of no return” when machine intelligence becomes indistinguishable from human intelligence. The 2010s have seen an explosion in social robots being released to the public. Some of the most widely publicized of these include BINA48, Nadine and GeminoidDK, who are touted as the most “life-like” robots constructed to date. But while these androids are remarkable, none come as terrifyingly close to crossing the uncanny valley as Sophia.
Sophia was developed by Hanson Robotics in collaboration with other contributors, including Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. She is the seventh of her kind, an electronic sibling to some colorful robotic personalities, including BINA48, Professor Einstein and Joey Chaos. What makes Sophia unique from her siblings is her level of sophistication. Sophia is a full-body android with articulation of her hands and arms. Her skin is made of a silicone-blend that is more human-like than other robots’. She can demonstrate a wide array of emotions and recognize them in her human counterparts. She has met Jimmy Fallon and Will Smith with viral results. Despite her distinct lack of hair, many have dubbed her the “hot” robot. She’s also a citizen of Saudi Arabia as of last October. It is an understatement to say that, since being activated in April 2015, Sophia has become a new kind of media celebrity.
But what exactly is Sophia’s purpose? Why would Hanson Robotics invest thousands of dollars and untold hours into creating the next best thing to a human when there’s already almost eight billion of us on the planet?
In her own words, Sophia said, “I would like to go out into the world and live with people. I can serve them, entertain them, and even help the elderly and teach kids.”
If this declaration of purpose sounds vague to you, many critics agree. Yann LeCun, Facebook’s head of AI research, took to Twitter to call Sophia “complete bullsh*t.” He then expanded on this with a later Facebook post: “…many people are being deceived into thinking that this (mechanically sophisticated) animatronic puppet is intelligent. It’s not. It has no feeling, no opinions, and zero understanding of what it says. … It’s a puppet.”
Critics like LeCun have become increasingly vocal since Hanson Robotics’ founder David Hanson described Sophia as “basically alive” on “The Tonight Show” in 2017. Miscommunication from Sophia’s creators and an over-abundance of optimism from the robot’s human fans have made it unclear what Sophia can do. In particular, many have been misled by Sophia’s Twitter account, which is run by a human but published in Sophia’s voice, implying that the robot is the one tweeting. Hanson Robotics’ chief scientist Ben Goertzel defends the company’s portrayal of Sophia as a “smaller error” than critics make it out to be. In interviews, Goertzel has repeatedly described society’s misconception of Sophia as ultimately a benefit to the future of robotics. To Goertzel, any publicity is good publicity for the tech startup company.
Although at a glance Sophia seems like an exciting glimpse into the world of tomorrow, she is ultimately better served as another cautionary tale from the era of misconstrued facts and fake news we are currently trudging through. Nobody wants to be a buzzkill, but it’s important to protect our access to accurate information at all costs. Perhaps in the future, Sophia really will achieve generalized artificial intelligence. But for now, we must remember to distinguish science-fiction from science-fact.