by Director of Rhodes Business School, Professor Owen Skea

Sophia the first humanoid robot citizen

How AI technology is revolutionising the world of robotics


“We are travelling the world learning about humans and getting excited about the future of technology,” said Sophia the world’s first-ever humanoid robot citizen when she addressed the Davos of Human Capital event hosted by Duke Corporate Education (Duke CE) on 11 July in Johannesburg.

The event, as Duke CE’s President, Africa & Global Managing Director, Europe & Africa, Sharmla Chetty, described it, “was an exploration of the intersection of humanity, technology, the future of work and leadership against the backdrop of unprecedented change and transformation in a world where technology is leading transformation, but people are still at its heart”.

To give you a bit of background on Sophia, or Sophia 8 (she has been through several evolutions) was first activated on Valentine’s day in 2016 and she made her first public appearance in Texas in March 2016. In October 2017, at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh, she was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship, becoming the first robot ever to have a nationality. She has 50 different facial expressions, and an intuitively programmed conversational ability.

What was interesting at the human capital event is that despite all the human anxieties about robots taking over the world and replacing human professionals and workers, no one found Sophia threatening. Everyone warmed to her and wanted to be photographed with the gently spoken, amusing, gracious humanoid who personifies some of the best human qualities.

Sophia also proved to be quite the public speaker and held the full attention of the human capital audience when she introduced the keynote speaker: “I would like you to meet someone very special to me, he is David Hanson, the founder of Hanson Robotics, and my Dad.” The audience loved it and there were resounding ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.

“Thank you Sophia, a very kind introduction,” Hanson responded, and she immediately replied: “You’re welcome”. She then reassured Hanson that during the delivery of his keynote address she would be right there in case he needed any backup.

Hanson’s title is Chief Creative Officer of Hanson Robotics, established in 2013 and based in Hong Kong. They specialise in humanised robots. Hanson emphasised that these robots are not sentient, they are created by humans and said: “We hope that they provoke humans as sentient beings to ask the deep questions about where technology is heading and what kind of future do we want to create?”.

He explained that over and above the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, economics and entrepreneurship, this era of technology and robots that we call the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), has prompted deep philosophical questioning and deep inner searching that will lead to new ideas about who we are and how we should be developing.

Instead, he added, so many of us are fixated on the negative side of robots and how they are going to change the world, including grey goo and terminator scenarios, the collapse of civilisation and mass extinction.

Presented with this portrait, one might be led to believe that if it wasn’t for humanoid robots and technology we’d be living in our perfect world where everything is good and tuned in to justice and sustainability, which is why we need to fight anything that might threaten this. We all know the world is not like this, that we are currently on a path of self-destruction, irrespective of technology, humanoid robots or artificial intelligence (AI).

At the same time we cannot deny there are bad guys are out there using technology to their own ends. We see Facebook and Twitter being used as ‘weapons of mass persuasion’ with bots and algorithms that influence people to vote a certain way or live a certain way, which leads to the scary scenario of what could happen if left unchecked.

We have seen the science fiction of decades past become a reality and humans therefore naturally fear what will happen when humanoid robots truly awaken during what is called the singularity event—a hypothetical future point in time where the growth of technology becomes uncontrollable and irreversible and the unscrupulous exploit this for their own self-interest.

The 4IR will unquestionably come with many unintended consequences and flaws. In 2003, Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute and author of Superintelligence expressed the idea of superintelligent AI with the capacity for something lifechanging, but which instead, has as its sole goal something completely arbitrary, such as to manufacture as many paperclips as possible. This starts transforming all of earth and space into paperclip manufacturing facilities. Ultimately, the world ends, not with a bang, but with a paper clip. What Bostrom is conveying is the ‘orthogonality thesis’ - that great intelligence can be hooked up to any goal —good, bad or arbitrary.

Hanson explained the message is that we need to get purposefully smarter, faster. We talk about making the big changes but we don’t do it; we talk about addressing climate change and social inequality but we don’t do it. It talks to leadership at all levels and this includes robots. He asks what is stopping us from creating superintelligent robots that are also super-wise, super-benevolent, super-caring and super-helpful?

Positive results in medical science have already been achieved with humanoid robots that greatly assist students in developing their knowledge of the human body and its reactions under certain conditions. Humanoid robots could also, for example, be outstanding carers for people with Alzheimer’s or autism as they could be programmed to be super-patient and caring. Or they could perform all the basic check-ups when you go to see the doctor or specialist.

A Sophia-type humanoid robot could welcome you and then check your heart, lungs and general condition so that by the time you get to see the human doctor or specialist they can spend the time talking to you and getting to the heart of your problem instead of wasting precious time doing the basic check-ups. The point being that we will always need doctors and specialists, but instead of being rushed in and out of most practices because they simply do not have the time, they would be able to offer far more personal attention and care.

Humanoid robots can also take on repetitive tasks at any level but what we need to ensure—and this is what we are not doing - is that the humans freed from those tasks have alternative work that is hopefully more stimulating and rewarding. We constantly talk about new-skilling people for decent, green jobs and professions at every level but we don’t do it or not to the degree we should. We talk about Luddites—those who strike about or fight against new technology or change – but we need to self-examine and change our own anti-progressive, Luddite behaviour.

The term Luddite dates back to the early 1800s when the original Luddites—British weavers and textile workers—feared that the new mass production, mechanised looms and knitting frames would destroy their craft and livelihoods. Which they did. This led to a group of craftsmen smashing the machines, but this was quickly quashed when they were gunned down, hanged or deported to Australia.

What are we doing to ensure that people’s livelihoods aren’t threatened by robots and the Fourth Industrial Revolution today? Why are we dragging our feet in a world engulfed by pollution and poverty that is rapidly running out of resources? It’s regressive to not take technology forward in parallel with a more equitable world in which we develop an acute consciousness that we all depend on the natural world.

We need to rapidly learn to treat our natural resources with the greatest respect, to use water carefully or harvest fish sustainably. We need to learn to treasure biodiversity, diversity and inclusivity. And yet we focus on how humanoid robots are going to subsume us. Surely we need to start look at life differently and start thinking about how we can develop ourselves into super-intelligent, super-wise, super-benevolent beings who are capable of making humanoid robots in our image instead of making humanoid robots that reflect how we should be?

Of course there are many monumental difficulties in the transitioning around this proposition, particularly when so many people’s life and work situation or no-work situation has never afforded them the freedom to self-actualise or find their purpose. But there are also so many people who have every opportunity to pursue their highest purpose, and still do not.

When people have purpose, Hanson explained, all the other requirements for a successful life and career can be integrated into this, including balance, structure, diligence, commitment and reliability, without which people, unravel, businesses unravel; governments and societies unravel, and the planet unravels.

As David Attenborough says, once upon a time nobody ever thought that we would have the impact on the planet that we are having. And we have created a situation that we are rapidly running out of time to try and fix. If humanoid robots can help us to explore a more existential, fulfilling life purpose, then they are a gift to us.

The planet is still a beautiful place if we will allow it to be, it all depends on whether we are going to approach it from a position of threat or wonder. 

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