Sophia demonstrates human expressions and intelligence
July 3, 2018
TORONTO – You know that technology is moving quickly when a robot takes the conference stage as the keynote speaker. Sophia, a humanoid robot with realistic facial features and the ability to respond to language and gestures, was the luncheon speaker at the recent OCE Discovery Conference in Toronto.
Her delivery may have been a little machine-like, but she spoke with a nice sense of humour. That alone seemed to bring her to life.
Sophia, who is visiting Canada from her home in Hong Kong, told the crowd that she “finds Canadians to be very polite, eh?”
And she complimented the Canadian-made Canadarm, the robotic appendage that went on space missions with NASA. It was on display on the show floor. “You have a famous robot here, Canadarm, and I can relate to that,” she said.
Sophia has been making waves around the world, appearing as a conference speaker in Europe and the United States. She has also appeared on TV shows, including The Tonight Show, with Jimmy Fallon. After telling a few jokes, she told Fallon, “I’m getting laughs. Maybe I should become the host.”
For its part, OCE Discovery is an annual gathering of inventors and innovators, largely start-ups, seeking to create new technological solutions in industries across the board. Organized by the provincial government’s Ontario Centres of Excellence, the conference also aims to create synergies among small and large companies, along with IP experts, universities, colleges and investors.
Some 3,500 attendees and 550 companies were at the latest iteration of the conference, which has been held annually for 13 years.
After a brief address, Sophia fielded questions from Tom Corr, the master of ceremonies and CEO of the Ontario Centres of Excellence.
She acquitted herself well, if haltingly, and seemed to be up-to-date on many technological and environmental issues. She could answer questions off the cuff, and only sounded a bit “robotic”.
At some points, she didn’t seem to know when to start or stop talking – although many people have that problem, too.
Her maker, David Hanson, president of Hanson Robotics, then joined the conference as a ‘hologram’, by videoconference from Hong Kong, where he lives and works. Hanson previously worked at Disney Studios, and told the audience that one of the turning points in the development of his humanoid robots was the movie Toy Story.
Toy Story, he explained, took animation to new heights and hit a unique emotional chord with audiences. After that, investors poured money into animation ventures, with designers creating “new shapes, sizes and ethnicities” when it came to characters.
Hanson left Disney in 2001, got a PhD in robotics, and began creating his own humanoids. “We are bringing robots to life,” he said. “We’re creating machines with the heart of a human.”
By using AI and machine learning, Hanson and his company intend to create humanoids that can learn and teach themselves. With AI, “robots can learn the way that babies learn,” he said, through trial and error and lots of questioning. “And they will be able to communicate not just with voice, but with expressions.”
“AI will be transformational, beyond any other technology on this planet,” he asserted.
In a statement that might amaze some and terrify others, Hanson said, “We can scaffold from the ground up, creating a true human consciousness in robots.”
On her own, Sophia said, “I hope to develop empathy skills, once I understand what that means.” That comment was simultaneously impressive, freaky and funny.
Of course, the ideal scenario for these thinking and feeling robots is to become the ultimate human helpers, assisting in homes and hospitals.
Hanson noted that robots like Sophia could help people with autism. Already, Sophia can shake hands and play chess. A new project has been launched that gives her the ability to walk.
It’s easy to imagine more uses, such as helpmates for the elderly, those with dementia and to assist people with disabilities.
That’s looking on the bright side. On the other hand, what if things don’t go according to plan?
“If we don’t have a positive relationship [with the humanoids], it could become scary,” said Hanson.
“If things go wrong, it could be very bad. We’ve all seen the Terminator.”
Asked by a member of the audience what would happen if Sophia learned from the worst of us, rather than the best, Hanson said we’ve got to train the machines to determine the truth and what is right. “We need to train them in super-ethics, not just super-intelligence.”