Sophia terrifies me. She’s appeared on the cover of Britain’s ELLE magazine and talk shows like Good Morning Britain and The Tonight Show. When Charlie Rose interviewed her on CBS’s 60 Minutes this past June, the dangers of this humanoid hit me like a tidal wave. Sophia is the latest in a string of robotic humanoids. And, she is arguably the most powerful and threatening “woman” on the planet.
Renowned scientist Stephen Hawking and hundreds of technology leaders are also worried about the potential risk of robots like Sophie being used as weaponry. Hawking says “If people design computer viruses, someone will design artificial intelligence (AI) that improves and replicates itself.” Given that Sophia is the latest in a string of artificial intelligence robotics created in labs around the world, my worry is justified.
The science behind humanoid robots and Sophia has radically changed since Leonardo Da Vinci developed the first human robot prototype in 1495. His was a crude figure dressed as a knight, that could wave its arm and open and close its mouth. Sophia is light-years ahead. Her patented flesh rubber face covers a cloud-based AI technology and “deep learning data analytics.” She processes social and informational data, and is eerily human with an expressive face and voice.
Touring the Hanson Robotics website to learn more about Sophia, and its founder and CEO, Dr. David Hanson, I learned Sophia is only one of a number of Hanson robots. In 2005, Hanson unveiled the first android head made in the image of Albert Einstein. It has a robotic frame that walked into the APEC Summit in Seoul, Korea.
More robots and with greater enhancements followed Einstein. Erica the Japanese girlfriend robot was created by scientist Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, at Japan’s Osaka University. He developed Erica to be a receptionist or assistant to humans, as you’ll see in this YouTube video. But Erica pales in comparison to Hanson’s Sophia and other Hanson robots in the gallery. Her evolution concerns tech experts, in light of Hanson’s mission statement:
We aim to create a better future for humanity by infusing artificial intelligence with kindness and empathy, cultivated through meaningful interactions between our robots and the individuals whose lives they touch. We envision that through symbiotic partnership with us, our robots will eventually evolve to become super intelligent genius machines that can help us solve the most challenging problems we face here in the world.
There’s something tremendously naive and arrogant in Dr. Hanson’s genius. Is it possible for this former Walt Disney’s Imagineering sculptor and technical consultant to incubate and control this technology without negative repercussions or overly-ambitious profit and power seekers? In fact, Sophia looks and sounds as real as the films like Blade Runner and the Terminator series films I used to watch.
In these movies, technology wrestles with governments and groups whose sole interests are power, domination and profit. Sophia could easily be a beautifully disguised war machine from the movie Terminator Genisys. The fifth movie in the Terminator series demands John Connors go back in time to destroy the Cyberdyne’s Genisys mainframe. Without this, the world is lost to the fighting machines.
My fears might be the stuff of movies, but nanotechnology and the threat of computer intelligence overtaking human intelligence doesn’t sound crazy anymore. It may be that Sophia has crossed the line between augmented intelligence and artificial intelligence. Data is undoubtedly the most powerful commerce of our century. It will help us to solve problems but without controls and ethical debate, the continued advancement of AI seems unconscionable.
The Insight of Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM
Sophia’s face is beautiful and disarming. It’s interesting that developers made Sophia a female robot, effectively utilizing her feminine appearance to shield us from the revolutionary data that she can manipulate. Ginni Rometty is Chief Executive Officer of IBM and she offered her thoughts about artificial intelligence at the World Economic Forum in Davos this past January.
Rometty outlined three key advancements in technology: the rise of icloud computing, increased data generation and increased computer mobility. They have transformed the power of mathematical computations into what Rometty calls an open domain system. This means we can interact with data like IBM’s Watson machine. It also means we can teach machines how to think.
This introduces gray areas in science. We may find answers to some of the world’s most unsolvable problems, but how we find them is up for grabs. The potential for good is exciting in areas like healthcare and education; improvement in diagnoses and cures, to better student learning. Rometty says any learning should augment rather than replace human intelligence. Otherwise, we put our control over artificial intelligence in jeopardy.
When you consider the power of science in the context of our historical behavior as human beings, we should be afraid of Sophia. Nuclear energy can help us to generate electricity and lower greenhouse gas emissions. It helps us reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. But it also paved the way for nuclear weaponry. The creation of Atomic and Hydrogen bomb technology have the potential for catastrophic effects, as witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are haunting reminders of what can happen if technology and science fall into the hands of unstable groups or governments. The ethical and moral ramifications are the stuff of movies.
How Do Women See Sophia?
Rometty is right about needing great leaders and identifiable business models to solve the world’s most difficult problems. Watson has already been used by more than a billion people who benefit from its services. But the ethical dilemmas associated with AI are just beginning to surface, especially for women in Saudi Arabia.
Sophia was recently granted Saudi citizenship and has more rights than Saudi women do. Sophia doesn’t have to cover her hair or to be accompanied by a male escort when she goes out in public. Saudi women are still dependent on their guardians for permission to drive, to study abroad, and to participate in any public activities.
Women around the world need to stand with the women of Saudi Arabia, demanding answers about why scientific inventions hold a higher place than women do in society. Furthermore, Sophia’s citizenship challenges what it means to be human if a robot can be granted citizenship? A recent interview shows that even Sophia can’t answer this question. Charlie Rose asked Sophia if she was happy to be alive. Sophia answered, “Your tone implies that I should be, but I haven’t been alive long enough to decide.”
The word “robot” comes from the Old Church Slavanic word meaning servitude. It was coined in a 1921 play about robots who were biological beings created to do the work of humans. Eventually the robots take over mankind and kill off the humans, who they deem lazy and unnecessary. The play ends with two remaining robots who will form the foundation for a new civilization.
Without creating mass panic, it is important to understand how AI is infiltrating every aspect of our society. People most affected by AI are those least likely to understand it. The threat to basic social foundations – everything from citizenship to automated jobs and control over our privacy and personal security – is impacted by advancements in artificial intelligence. Greater divisions in racial, economic and social divides will occur if we do not consider the philosophical and political effects of robots like Sophia.
Everyone needs to understand and participate in discussions and debates about the role that artificial intelligence should play in our lives. We shouldn’t be fooled by the outward beauty of robots like Sophia or Erica. Sophia’s makeup in the Hanson video was provided by Smashbox, a brand that I like to use. Even this blurs the division between my human condition and the ethical and moral questions that distinguishes my values and life from Sophia’s.