Sophia and the problem of robot deception


David Hanson, founder of robotics company Hanson Robotics, has every intention of bringing Sophia the robot to life. “I don’t think we’ll achieve the potential in artificial intelligence without true living machines,” he told WikiTribune. “The whole homeostasis regulation of organism, consciousness: all these layers of experience and creativity … if we have that, it’s a profound transformation.”

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Sophia is a humanoid robot who is able to display more than 50 facial expressions. Since her activation in 2015, she’s grown into a public figure, notably becoming the first robot in the world to receive an honorary citizenship, granted to her by Saudi Arabia in 2016. Consequently, some Saudi women have criticized the kingdom for giving more rights to a robot than it does to women.

Sophia, a robot with Saudi Arabian citizenship, reacts as she interacts during the innovation fair in Kathmandu, Nepal March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
Sophia, a robot with Saudi Arabian citizenship, reacts as she interacts during the innovation fair in Kathmandu, Nepal March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Despite her popularity in public life, the reality between what Sophia is and how she’s presented is perhaps overstated. Her impression of “aliveness” is largely surface level. Quartz reported that experts who reviewed Sophia’s open-source code, which is posted on GitHub, agree that she’s aptly described as a chatbot with a face.

Hanson told WikiTribune that Sophia is best seen not as a robot, but as a “platform for embodied cognition.” In other words, she’s a research platform for the team’s artificial intelligence (AI) research. Nonetheless, he has high hopes for what Sophia can bring to the development of this technology.

‘I want those machines to care about us’ – David Hanson

“This is potentially the greatest transformative tech trend in civilization ever,” said Hanson. “People are skeptical of it, people say that it may not happen, but if we create a true living machine that’s evolving, reinventing itself, it will be so profoundly transformative.

“I want those machines to care about us. And the idea of machine wisdom, the ideal of machine wisdom, we don’t have it yet. But we can depict it in our stories. So yes, I think that nurturing our machines towards that, and to consider that they might have those rights and agencies at some point in the future, treating them now with the kind of respect. We have to think about this now.”

Sophia the robot. Photo by Linh Nguyen/WikiTribune CC-BY-SA 4.0
Sophia the robot. Photo by Linh Nguyen/WikiTribune CC-BY-SA 4.0

Skeptical of Sophia

Hanson’s tech-utopian views have been received with skepticism from the scientific community: he has been called out, for example, for exaggerating Sophia’s capabilities. In one episode of Jimmy Fallon’s talk show, Hanson said that the robot was “basically alive” when many others have concluded she’s just a sophisticated chatbot.

‘Google is better than any robot. It’s still AI even though it’s not shaped as a person’ – Joanna Bryson

At an AI festival in London, Hanson was debating with other experts, including Joanna Bryson, a professor at the University of Bath, on whether AI should resemble humans.

Bryson holds more wary views of this stance, saying that humans are exceptionally good at self-deception. “There are already people who are treating Sophia as a moral patient, there are people who are already defending her rights. People are easily self-deceiving,” said Bryson.

The focus on Sophia, Bryson added, also means that we overlook and misunderstand what is classified as powerful AI. “Google is better than any robot. It’s still AI even though it’s not shaped as a person. But that doesn’t get brought up as the most sophisticated AI,” she said.

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Sophia the robot. Credit: International Telecommunication Union, via Wikimedia. License: CC 2.0
Sophia the robot. Credit: International Telecommunication Union, via Wikimedia. License: CC 2.0
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