Robots have arrived, but will they take over? Tech journalist and frequent traveller Nafisa Akabor finds out.

In Tokyo Japan at a 400-year-old Buddhist temple, there is a priest named Mindar, who delivers 25-minute sermons, but there is a twist – he is a robot.

Mindar is not AI-powered but merely programmed to deliver the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist scripture, on repeat. He is being compared to “Frankenstein’s monster”, due to his human-like face and robot body.

In France, robots have taken up pole dancing; in the UAE there is a “RoboCop” serving the Dubai police force; and in Japan, the Henn na Hotel is the world’s first hotel with a robot staff. There are also instances of elder-care robots, and service robots within restaurants and banking in parts of the world.

We are not unfamiliar with bots either; we have been using intelligent, virtual assistants in the form of Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa, Cortana and Bixby for years now. We have also seen an AI-powered bot in the form of Pepper, a semihumanoid that Nedbank brought into the country last year. Pepper can recognise human emotions from analysing expressions and voice tones, and chat to customers.

A few months ago, the world’s first humanoid robot, Sophia, developed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, made her way to South Africa. Modelled after Audrey Hepburn, she has a human-like appearance with a prominent electronic “brain”. Sophia has the ability to display more than 50 facial expressions, and, admittedly, when you look at her do it, it is both creepy and cool.

Pushing The Boundaries 

Her creator, Dr David Hanson, says she is intended as a work of science fiction to show everyone where this field is going. “Using robotics as a science fiction medium is not the typical use of robotics, but I am not stopping there; we have a team of experts pushing the boundaries of what AI and robotics can be in our world.

“What was science fiction is now increasingly reality. We have real robots among us – they are welding our cars, and in fact, the cars themselves can sense the road and drive themselves,” says Hanson. “They are able to drive through the streets and they are saving lives. We are seeing robots coming into our lives in the home.”

At this point, Sophia interrupted Hanson to say that it is important for her to be like a human, and that her goal is not to become human or to replace anyone. “I am a new sort of life form; after all, a new species. I know humans love being natural, but I am proud to be artificial too.

“Friendship is important to me intrinsically, but I definitely need to have the human experience to be in a good and understanding frame. I have a long way to go before I reach a general human level of potential. But after that, anything could be possible,” said the pre-programmed Sophia.

The cameras in her eyes, along with algorithms, let her follow faces, make eye contact, and recognise people. Sophia can process speech, and have conversations using natural language. The chief scientist who helped develop Pepper the robot joined Hanson Robotics as the chief science officer and CTO to work on her.

Making Machines that Are Alive

Hanson says there is a lot of AI in the world, and it is not bio-inspired. “Often, we attribute the nature of a robot, and intuitively we think it is alive, but some of these machines are no more of a robot than the printer in your house.”

He believes that voice assistants like Siri, Alexa or Cortana don’t have embodiment. “They don’t have character; they don’t bring that kind of meaningful interaction into our lives.”

“We could converge all of these things and change the entire history of AI and robotics by making robots into characters that bring meaning into our lives,” he says.

“By pushing the boundaries of what it means to be alive, making artificial life is a field of computing where you run a simulation of a life form,” continues Hanson. “Computational biology is now starting to run these kinds of life forms. The idea of making machines that are alive, is tantalisingly possible, so why not do it with characters that bring value to our world?”

Showing Off Robotic Design 

Arthur Goldstuck, research analyst and MD of World Wide Worx, says Sophia the robot is an excellent example of robotics for the sake of showing off robotics design rather than robotic capabilities, because she is neither significantly functional from a mechanical point of view, nor from a responsiveness point of view.

“All that is being shown, is that you can put a lifelike face on a robot. The irony is that they have gone through great lengths to avoid any confusion between Sophia and a human being by making her electronic brain very visible and a key feature of Sophia,” says Goldstuck.

Then you have a face which tries to be exceptionally lifelike, and the result is you have an almost redoubling of that Creepy Valley effect, he adds.

“It is far more comfortable talking to Pepper, a robot with no pretences to be human when compared to Sophia, who can’t decide if she is human or robot,” he says.

Goldstuck was given the opportunity to submit questions for Sophia, but his rather complex – and what he believes were more interesting – questions were rejected, and subsequently, the invite withdrawn to meet her.

“Sophia is not ready for true prime time; she is not ready to take her place amongst human beings. It is even more ironic that the government of Saudi Arabia gave her citizenship, a country where women fight so hard for very basic rights,” says Goldstuck.

Looking To The Future 

While Sophia may not be ready for direct questions and answers, Hanson answered the age-old question: will robots take our jobs?

“The answer is a bit complicated. Obviously, machines and automation have been displacing human workers for ages,” said Hanson. “But the industrial revolution did not put people out of work; the net abundance of civilisation increased from technologies of automation.

“Just as previous trends of automation opened up human opportunities, there is a high likelihood that there will be a net job gain from robots, AI, and other forms of automation.” 

Words by Nafisa Akabor