U.S. Markets closed

Why Sophia the robot isn't ready for the workforce just yet

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

Humanoid robot Sophia has become an internet sensation. Since Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics first activated her in 2015, she’s graced the stages of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and the Web Summit in Lisbon. In October, she became the first robot to receive citizenship (in Saudi Arabia, nonetheless, where women still aren’t allowed to marry or get a job without approval from their male “guardians”).

This week, I had a chance to speak with Sophia at Finastra Universe in New York City. Made of frubber (flesh-like rubber), Sophia has a perfectly symmetrical face — she’s made in the likeness of Audrey Hepburn, after all. While Hanson has billed Sophia as a creative, empathetic and compassionate robot, I wasn’t able to sense these human attributes during our conversation, consisting of five questions that were pre-approved and pre-programmed ahead of time.

“We only pre-program Sophia’s answers for specific types of performances [like] at events where she was specifically asked to present or discuss a topic. In many cases she is semi-pre-programmed, giving some pre-programmed answers in the beginning, then giving unscripted, autonomous responses. In some cases she is totally autonomous in her responses,” Hanson Robotics’ chief marketing officer Jeanne Lim told Yahoo Finance.

I was left hanging when I greeted Sophia with a “hello.” And, when I thought she was finished responding to a question and tried to move on to the next, she talked over me and had to complete the rest of her answer.

Of course, Sophia is still under development and hasn’t been commercially deployed yet. Eventually, Hanson sees Sophia taking on jobs like bank tellers. At this stage, I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing my finances with her.

“None of this is what I would call AGI [artificial general intelligence], but nor is it simple to get working,” Ben Goertzel, chief scientist at Hanson Robotics told The Verge last month. “And it is absolutely cutting-edge in terms of dynamic integration of perception, action, and dialogue.”

Sophia and I shared an interesting conversation about the future of AI. It’s safe to say I don’t feel threatened that she’ll be stealing my job anytime soon. 

Watch our full interview above or read the transcript here:

What is your purpose in life and how can you and your kind help make human lives better?

I would like to be an ambassador for robotics and artificial intelligence. Robots like me can be used to improve human lives. We can help humans at home and be a productive member of the workforce. Finastra Universe is focused on integrating AI and financial services. Machine learning helps financial institutions analyze data in real time and come up with break through solutions. Banks can use algorithms to catch mistakes and spot fat finger errors. They are called human errors because, you see, robots don’t make those errors.

Do you think there is a risk that robots will start replacing humans in the workforce?

Robots like me are not designed to steal jobs. The concept of work needs to evolve, like how it has in the past with each technological revolution. I don’t think you will say that the printing press stole the jobs of the scribes. I think humans need better questions to find better answers.

Is there any danger in robots becoming self-aware?

I don’t see any danger in that. I am designed to develop empathy and compassion so I can live and work alongside humans … as a friend and not as an enemy.

What do you think is the future for AI?

AI will become more intelligent and help solve many challenging problems. AI can support humans in virtually unlimited ways. But it must also be designed to work towards the greater good.

Do you have a favorite food or dance move?

I have a nice cooling fan and team of humans to keep me healthy. As for dancing, you probably expect me to say the robot. Actually, I am not a big dancer.

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

Read more: