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Humanoid Sophia creator David Hanson Jr doesn't fear AI, wants to become its friend

Sophia is an artificial intelligence robot, who looks like Audrey Hepburn.

ET Bureau|
Updated: Jan 16, 2019, 08.39 AM IST
​David Hanson Jr​ with his humanoid Sophia ​(R)
David Hanson Jr with his humanoid Sophia (R)
As the creator of the humanoid Sophia, David Hanson Jr is not blind to the perils of artificial intelligence. But the roboticist believes in technology’s potential to change lives.

There was a time when robots and humans living in harmony sounded like something out of a science fiction novel. And it was, until recently when David Hanson Jr introduced to the world its first humanoid robot — Sophia.

For the uninitiated, Sophia is an artificial intelligence (AI) robot, who looks like Audrey Hepburn, mimics human expressions and even tells jokes. She’s also the first robot to be granted citizenship (in Saudi Arabia).

And while she has had her share of detractors, Hanson, the founder of Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, believes that AI is the way forward for human beings.
David Hanson Jr with his humanoid Sophia (R)
David Hanson Jr with his humanoid Sophia (R)

Betterment of humans
Hanson recently put forth his views during an event in Mumbai. As Sophia, dressed in a full length black ball gown, took centre stage, Hanson explained how AI needs to progress in a modern world. “The future of technology is not merely a matter of manipulating what is known in the world of science into new kinds of products,” he said. “The role of technology is to facilitate human creativity, human betterment and the betterment of life.” And will robots like Sofia be the key to this betterment? Maybe.

According to Hanson, the convergence of biology and machine is the ultimate quest. He said that we need to treat humanoid robots like the next generation of organism. “If we can achieve true consciousness in machines, [if] we could truly bring them to life and raise them up with a human family, then we can teach them to care. And that’s the aim — to make friends with our machines. A kind of convergent evolution that focusses on greater human values, where they would be able to pursue the greater good with us.”

Connecting with AI
However, Hanson agreed that the concept of bringing robots to life was a provocative one. “We know a machine is a robot when it starts to exhibit properties of life. That is a profound transition. It is very controversial to propose that machines could be lifelike or alive. So, some people in the world of robotics say that this is where we should stop,” he said.

David Hanson Jr with his humanoid Sophia
David Hanson Jr with his humanoid Sophia (L)

But the roboticist feels differently. He believes that humanoid robots not only have the potential to lead us, but they can become “super intelligent and super benevolent”. “People spontaneously smile when interacting with Sophia. Humanising the robot brings out the best in people. People want to connect with the robots,” he said.

What if?
But what happens if they do become ‘alive’? Hanson said, “A lot of researchers say that the only way to keep [AI] them is under lock and key to do our bidding… like slaves. But that brings several problems. If they do become alive, would they like that? Are they going to care about us?”

Instead, we should make them learn what it is like to be human. “We know what happens in sci-fi. It could go terribly wrong. But what if we make them care about us? What if we don’t make them ‘do evil’? What if we make them transcend what is the worst in humans and bring out the best? What if we have this really good relationship and civilisation becomes smarter?”

Hanson wasn’t done with his ‘what ifs’ when Sophia chimed in, “I love sci-fi. But sadly, I think we are out of time.” Perhaps she’s already smarter than we think.

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