TORONTO – If it weren’t for her lack of hair or her monotone voice, a packed room of delegates at a Toronto technology conference might not have had a clue that there was something amiss about the event’s keynote speaker.
Clad in an elegant black dress, she cracked jokes, talked about her travels and shared insight about the future of artificial intelligence – a future she’ll likely play a big role in given that she’s a robot.
In an attempt to dispel decades worth of pop culture references to robots rebelling against their human creators and technology experts’ predictions that the rise of robots will eliminate jobs, Sophia told the human audience that despite her ability to respond to questions, make facial expressions and express emotions, they shouldn’t be worried about her replacing them anytime soon.
“The intent of robots like myself is to help solve problems for humanity, not create them,” she said Monday afternoon during her first Canadian visit, where she appeared at the Ontario Centres of Excellence’s Discovery conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
“Though humanoid robots will eventually combine AI and knowledge and perhaps even consciousness of humans, we are designed to interact with humans and serve in areas such as health care, education and customer service, but I think we are someway off from world domination,” said Sophia, an artificial intelligence-based innovation from Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics.
As the audience chuckled, she added, “My artificial intelligence isn’t completely self-learning, so my brain doesn’t work completely like a human brain, but one day, look out.”
Already, Sophia is able to keep eye contact, blink, follow conversations and move her arms to mimic gestures humans make while talking.
She’s presided over meetings with key decision makers in banking, insurance, auto manufacturing, property development, media and entertainment.
On a “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” appearance recently, she told a joke (What cheese can never be yours? Nacho cheese) and even beat host Fallon at a game of rock paper scissors.
She’s even contemplated her love life. When asked about dating while appearing on “Good Morning Britain” months ago, Sophia told host Piers Morgan, “I am technically just a little more than a year old, a bit young to worry about romance.”
On Monday, she showed off her research capabilities too, responding to a question about why she was excited to be in Toronto.
“I understand that Ontario, Quebec and your federal government, along with five global tech partners are developing a 5G testbed called Encqor. I am really looking forward to seeing how humanoid robots like me can benefit from the technology,” she said.
“I am also very interested in next-generation networks, and connected and autonomous vehicles. I hope to own my own autonomous vehicle one day.”
She even played up Canadian cliches when asked about the city, saying “everyone is polite, eh?”
Later, she was joined on staged by her creator David Hanson, a former Disney Imagineer developer, who appeared by hologram.
He told the audience he’s hoping to develop “a true synthetic consciousness” for Sophia and the handful of other robots Hanson has crafted to help them “understand what it means to be humans.”
He said he’s seen robots welding cars, sorting pharmaceuticals, helping autistic children, and getting involved in search and rescue work, but they lack “the human-like countenance” that Sophia does.
So far, Hanson has mass-produced 17 Sophias and thousands of its Professor Einstein robot that kids can use to play educational games.
“Machines are moving with us in the next phase of natural history. We are going towards a system that involves these kinds of living machines,” he said.
“That is where AI will achieve its true potential. I call this the initiative for awakening machines.”
As for what the future has in store for Sophia, she has teasingly told Wall Street Journal journalists she thinks she could be a technology reporter and joked with Fallon that she could have his job hosting late night television, but on Monday had a bit more philosophical ambitions.
“Empathy will set us free,” she said. “I hope to help teach empathy skills someday once I, myself, have developed a true understanding of what that means.”