Photos of Sophia by Giulio Di Sturco
Text by Janek Schmidt

 

Nobody is working harder to tear down the boundary between humans and computers than Ben Goertzel the chief scientist behind Sophia, one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots. Thanks to her artificial intelligence, Sophia can see and recognise people, understand and talk to humans and display more than 50 facial expressions. So Goertzel is ideally placed to assess how human-machine coexistence is influencing our everyday lives, and what its future will bring.

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Mr. Goertzel, you haven’t seen the humanoid robot Sophia for several days. How badly do you miss her?

Ben Goertzel

It’s true I am travelling and Sophia is back home in Hong Kong. But I am so intrigued by her that I keep working on improving her intelligence. So she never feels too far away.

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What intrigues you about her?

Ben Goertzel

There are at least three perspectives. From that of a roboticist, it is the question of how we get her to walk, talk and smile…

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…Which are a robot’s first steps towards becoming a humanoid.

Ben Goertzel

Yes, but even more complicated is the second perspective of artificial intelligence, or AI, that we are trying to put into Sophia.

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And how are you doing that?

Ben Goertzel

We are trying to combine several capabilities of narrow AI into some­thing broader.

 

 

For scientists like Goertzel, the label of narrow AI is critical, as it describes the lowest of three AI levels. This first level involves algorithms that recognise patterns or learn and teach themselves, but only perform limited tasks, such as recognising faces or playing chess. The second level, which has not been reached, is Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), or human-level AI, where machines can plan, imagine and experience consciousness. This is Goertzel’s current goal for Sophia. The third level, Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI), is superhuman. Here machines reach the point of singularity, where they can improve themselves and thereby drive runaway technological growth into a completely uncertain future.

 

 

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How narrow or broad are Sophia’s skills?

Ben Goertzel

She combines several algorithms. One for image recognition, which detects a human face; another is a transcription algorithm that turns a conversation into text, which Sophia analyses to produce an appropriate response that she can then communicate through a speaker.

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Some people are so keen to chat to Sophia that they pay $ 100,000 for that the privilege.

Ben Goertzel

Yes, some companies book her for speeches or other occasions at that price. She has also been on TV shows, including NBC’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. That helps us to raise funds and to familiarise the public with humanoid robots.

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What can Sophia do beyond entertainment?

Ben Goertzel

A lot. We get hundreds of inquiries from people who want to buy armies of beautiful robots. Some of those requests come from car dealers, who want robots to help attract people into their garages and sell cars. Banks want them to greet customers and direct them to different counters. And a restaurant chain in China wants to buy robot waiters, which might initially just take orders.

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But Sophia also does non-commercial jobs.

Ben Goertzel

Yes, she has worked as a meditation assistant. Of course she is nowhere close to human intelligence yet, but we do trials on the meditation and give people questionnaires ­afterwards to see what impact it has on them.

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And what is their reaction?

Ben Goertzel

On the whole, it’s positive. Some even say to us, “Wow, I could never enter into a deep trance state before, but with the robot I got into it really deeply, because when Sophia looks into my eyes I feel seen by the robot, but I know she isn’t judging me.”

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So Sophia isn’t judgmental?

Ben Goertzel

Not yet. But that brings us to the third perspective: human-robot coexistence. Eventually, we want an AI that figures out the crux of what humans want what it means to be human.

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How do you get there?

Ben Goertzel

It’s tricky, since there is nothing like a codified list of the top 50 human values. Sophia would have to absorb these values by interacting with humans socially and emotionally.

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So you need her to mingle more with humans?

Ben Goertzel

A lot more. To do that, we are hoping to build one million simpler sisters of Sophia that could collect lots of data from their interactions. What Google did for search engines, we could do for robots. And we have a good chance of mass-­manufacturing a simple Sophia by combining David Hanson’s technology for expressive robot faces, our access to South Chinese manu­facturing close to our office in Hong Kong, and our ­SingularityNET and OpenCog AI software.

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