Humanoid robot Sophia at Techfest 2017; is she really sentient?


By Stephen Fernandes Mobile: 9820707327  Email:


Sophia’, the first robot  to receive citizenship of a country( Saudi Arabia), was introduced to Indian audiences  at  Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay’s (IIT-B) annual Techfest

The saree-clad android, who greeted students with a namaste, is a social-human robot i.e. she can recognize people, make around 50 facial expressions, talk, respond to queries and an make eye contact .

Shedding light on AI to the students, Sophia went on to state that intelligence displayed by machines is the future of technology and it will let humans and robots co-exit with mutual understanding.

Around 2,200 students that packed the institute’s convocation hall to pose questions to the humanoid who was granted the citizenship of Saudi Arabia in October this year. Sophia was asked 20 questions, which were shortlisted from hundreds of questions received through the three-day #AskSophia campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

Sophia said that robots like her should be used for “the benefit of humanity and lift the burdens that crush the human spirit”. She said “sustainable development is the need of the hour” to solve the problems the world is facing.

A crowd of over 3000 people waited with baited breath, answering the initial few questions smartly and impressed the audience with her wits.

However, after the initial questions, she stopped responding to questions. When the anchor asked her opinion about spending so much money on robots when there are so many issues she just stopped talking.

But is Sophia truly a sentient android?Is this truly the last frontier  AI conquered?

Sophia’s creator Hanson Robotics Limited, a Hong Kong-based robotics company told media that the robot is “basically alive”. Sophia is a truly awesome feat of engineering but sentient, it is not.

Robot Sophia is not as much a take on artificial intelligence as she is a take on human-lookalike robots with an integrated text-to-speech synthesis system and the ability to produce sophisticated facial expressions by means of what’s called actuators in robotics.


The robot Sophia is good example of advancements in developing facial expression mechanics for robots, though still within the field of looking somewhat creepy. (She lies in, what in robotics is called, the ‘uncanny valley’ between human and unhuman appearance). Robot Sophia does not understand the words that it is told to produce

We can train an artificial intelligence to recognize the words “humanity”, “the universe” and “biology” and produce sentences like “I know these things” when asked about them, but they are still essentially meaningless to the AI itself. It’s like teaching a parrot to repeat sentences that describe quantum physics; it doesn’t make the parrot a physicist. In many ways, parrots are way smarter than any AI today. In AI research, we really have no actual idea of how to teach an AI to understand complex human-world issues yet.

This parroting is exactly what Hanson Robotics has done with Sophia. They’ve taken an advanced facial expression robot and tried to present it as something it isn’t to investors and mass media.

For Ben Goertzel, chief scientist at Hanson Robotics, the company that made Sophia, the situation is conflicting, to say the least. Goertzel said it was “not ideal” that some thought of Sophia as having artificial general intelligence or AGI (the industry term for human-equivalent intelligence) but, he acknowledged that the misconception did have its upsides.

“For most of my career as a researcher people believed that it was hopeless, that you’ll never achieve human-level AI.” Now, he says, half the public thinks we’re already there. And in his opinion it’s better to overestimate, rather than underestimate, our chances of creating machines cleverer than humans. “I’m a huge AGI optimist, and I believe we will get there in five to ten years from now. From that standpoint, thinking we’re already there is a smaller error than thinking we’ll never get there,” says Goertzel.


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