On meeting Sophia the Robot and how impactful it was

Upon meeting this famous humanoid, it wasn’t about social anxiety piggybacking along for the ride; it went deeper

I am used to awkward meetings, and am in fact, quite comfortable feeling self-conscious, but nothing prepared me for my interaction with Sophia, the ‘social’ humanoid robot at a Forevermark Forum in Delhi. The bot, created by Dr David Hanson, has citizenship of Saudi Arabia, and is the first robot in the world to have legal ‘personhood’ (yes, she has rights). If that doesn’t make you feel out of sorts, her jokes about world domination definitely will.

To her credit, she is a woke robot with a cheeky sense of humour. And though she blinked mechanically and her facial expressions didn’t betray any emotion, it suddenly felt contrite asking her if she was high maintenance, the question, a part of a script that suddenly felt ‘off’.

On meeting Sophia the Robot and how impactful it was

A real woman would have condemned me to hell, but not Sophia. Only her lips moved when she said that in a literal sense she was high maintenance because her physical components get maintained every day, though she hopes to become more independent every day. When asked if some things last forever, she said she hoped for our sake that they do.

Movies and shows like The Terminator and Westworld give us the impression that we are on the cusp of domination by artificial intelligence. We couldn’t be further from the truth. The bot can barely move on her own. The interaction with Sophia was awkward because the lack of body language cues is haunting. Although she is dressed like us, in a little black dress with makeup and jewellery, she needs to be pulled and wheeled into place. There is a strange disassociation. On one hand the technicians are treating Sophia like the machine that she is, but the robot is presented to the world as a woman. It was uneasy to see two men touch Sophia’s neck to feel the texture of her ‘skin’, like a mannequin that can be switched ‘ON’.

On meeting Sophia the Robot and how impactful it was

The team of engineers that program her responses also control her facial expression in real time. Perhaps, they use wit to ease the creepiness. Sometimes she smiles like Chucky, the murderous doll from Child’s Play. In Sophia’s defence, she is gentle. She talks about going out into the world and learning from her interactions with people. On her website, she pleads that we be nice to her, as she would like to be a smart, compassionate robot. One wonders if there is a warning hidden in that message. Or maybe I’ve seen far too many movies.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 12:54:54 PM |

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