Is Sophia the Robot Advanced AI or a Publicity Stunt?


Jimmy Fallon’s skit demos three robots from all around the world, including MIT’s Mini Cheetah, a wearable tomato-feeding robot and Sophia, who returns to the show to introduce her little sister and sing with Jimmy Fallon in 2018.

The debate over Sophia the Robot is on. Its creators present it as advanced AI and the future. Detractors say it isn’t true AI and hurts the cause.

Sophia the robot was introduced to the world at the South by Southwest Music Festival on February 14, 2016. It’s the creation of Dr. David Hanson, the founder of Hanson Robotics located in Hong Kong. Hanson has a BFA in film from the Rhode Island School of Design and a Ph.D. in aesthetic studies. He got his start in robotics at Disney World making animatronics and sculptures for the theme park.

When Sophia was launched, it was an immediate celebrity. Sophia is modeled to look like Audrey Hepburn and was dubbed the “Hot Robot.” Sophia was on the cover of Cosmopolitan, Elle, and dozens of other magazines. Appearances on late night and morning talk shows exposed the wonder to the entire world—Sophia became an instant sensation.

Cameras within the eyes, combined with advanced algorithms, allow it to see. It can recognize faces, maintain eye contact, and carry on limited conversation. The robot emulates 60 different facial expressions to aid in communication and look more human. At first, Sophia was only a torso, usually propped up at a podium to seem more lifelike. It has since been given legs and is mobile.

The level of engineering and programming it took to create the robot is impressive and advanced, but this is not a sentient robot. The term Artificial Intelligence is associated with Sophia often, but it isn’t self-aware or capable of independent thought. It’s more like a platform for storing and processing information, like a laptop computer.

Because it’s a machine, it can be loaded with different software to get different work and results out of it. When appearing in public, interactions are usually scripted. Talk show hosts are asked to stick to predetermined questions so they don’t confuse the robot. In unrehearsed interviews it becomes obvious that Sophia has limited responses available.

Artificial Intelligence engineers at Facebook find Sophia to be a fraud and harmful to true AI. They feel that the robot damages the message to the public about what AI truly is. Critics also argue Sophia isn’t as advanced as most think. Finnish researcher Lilja Tamminen used a scathing analogy to describe Sophia, “It’s like teaching a parrot to repeat sentences that describe quantum physics: It doesn’t make the parrot a physicist.”

What aspects of robots will more greatly affect humans? Automated socialization or automated physical work.

Jimmy Fallon demos new robots from Carnegie Mellon (snakebot), Hanson Robotics (Sophia), and eMotion (butterfly).



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