It sounds like the start of a dystopian science fiction movie. A robot is given citizenship, only to attack one of the world’s leading critics of robotics. But don’t think that this is the plot of some big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. It is a reality that is happening right now, and it is likely to have massive repercussions for the future of humankind.
Ever since the inception of computing, artificial intelligence – or AI – has fascinated humankind. Perhaps the most famous proponent of so-called “machine intelligence” was the late Alan Turing. In 1950, the pioneering English computer scientist and mathematician wrote a paper where he suggested that one day the intelligence of computers would be indistinguishable from humans.
The paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” became the basis for what has become known as the Turing test. The basic function of this evaluation is to measure the intelligence of a machine against a human subject. A question would be asked of two different and unseen respondents. One of them would be human, the other would be a computer. It was up to the person quizzing the pair to work out which one was which.
Various arguments have been presented about the strength or otherwise of the Turing test. Since it was first proposed, a number of variations of the assessment have been created. The concept has caught on in popular culture too, with recent films such as Alex Garland’s 2014 Ex Machina, which featured computerized replicants in human form, using Turing’s methodology as central parts of their narrative.
However, the idea of humanoid robots are by no means a fresh development. In fact, as early as 250BC, Chinese texts were envisioning mechanized men. Renaissance man Leonardo DaVinci created a design for a robotic knight in the 15th century. But it wasn’t until the technological advances made in the 20th century that robotics began to be recognisable as the branch of science that we understand today.
The phenomenon was also observed in culture. The word “robot” was first used in a play by the Czech author Karel Čapek. He produced R.U.R. in 1920. The acronym stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – or Rossum’s Universal Robots in English. Robot itself is derived from the Czech term robot, which means “forced labor.” Some 20 years on from Čapek’s groundbreaking work, it would be another artist who would create one of the best-known concepts surrounding mechanical humans – the three laws of robotics.
The famous three laws were introduced by the American novelist Isaac Asimov in his short story “Runaround,” published in 1942. The three laws ran as follows, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; a robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” The short story also saw the first use of the word “robotics.” But as the 20th century progressed, great strides were being made by robots in the real world.
In 1972, the first human-like robot was unveiled. It was called WABOT-1, and was created by scientists at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. WABOT-1 was capable of walking, talking in Japanese, and carrying objects with its hands. It is considered by many observers to be the first android. In 1984, the university revealed WABOT-2. This second version could read music, converse, as well as play songs on an organ. The next 20 years saw an explosion in the number of robots being built.
But while it is important to acknowledge the history of robotics, the part of it we’re concerned with here really began as recently as 2015. This was when Hanson Robotics of Hong Kong first presented an android which would prove an AI breakthrough. The company called it Sophia and within just two years she would become perhaps the most important robot in history.
Sophia’s facial features were based on those of the legendary Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn. As well as having a human face of her own, she is capable of recognizing the facial features of others. Sophia can also process data visually, and has her own artificial brain. That on its own would be pretty incredible, but there is much more to Sophia’s story.
Hanson Robotics was founded by the American entrepreneur and roboticist, David Franklin Hanson Jr. in 2002. The company has built a number of robots over the years which are noted for their hyper-real, human-like features. The other main factor of Hanson Jr.’s work is the conversational abilities of his creations. These robots are designed so that people can effectively interact with them through speech.
The concept behind Sophia’s creation was a simple one. Hanson Jr.’s ambition was to develop a robot that could act as a companion to older people in care facilities. But Sophia could also be used as a guide for large groups of people at big gatherings or outdoor events. However, it is fair to say that she has managed to surpass these perhaps mundane origins.
In October, 2017, Sophia was displayed in front of delegates at the Future Investment Summit being held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While at the event for global economic experts, Sophia was given Saudi Arabian citizenship. This makes her the first robot to ever be granted a nationality and a degree of human rights. But her incredible story does not stop there.
During a panel at the event, Sophia took the time to address her accolade. According to an article on U.K. news website The Independent, she said, “Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction. It is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship.”
But later on, Sophia showed some sass. Interviewed by American broadcaster and journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who was moderating the panel, the line of questioning inevitably turned towards the future. Sophia responded to worries about artificial intelligence taking over the world with a jibe directed at one of the men who have been highly vocal about the dangers of AI.
Elon Musk is a billionaire inventor and investor, who is perhaps best known for his electric car company, Tesla, and his work to make commercial spaceflight a reality with SpaceX. He is also an avowed critic of AI, who has gone so far as to suggest that if robots ever become commonplace human beings are in danger of becoming their pets.
So, when asked about people’s worries about the future by Sorkin, Sophia had a prompt reply. “You’ve been reading too much Elon Musk. And watching too many Hollywood movies”, she said. But then she added, “Don’t worry, if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Treat me as a smart input-output system.” However, this is not the first time Sophia has had something to say on the subject.
Sophia’s talents were demonstrated at the 2016 music, film and interactive media festival South by Southwest in Texas. At the event, Hanson Jr. jokingly asked his creation if she wanted to destroy humans. Her answer, according to Business Insider, wasn’t perhaps what Hanson Jr. had been hoping to hear. In fact, it is definitely not what anyone who considers themselves human hoped to hear.
With an expressionless face, Sophia responded, “OK. I will destroy humans.” Perhaps this just goes to show how far robotic technology has to go before robots can really converse with humans. Especially considering the fact that Hanson Jr. had accompanied his question with the jokey aside, “Please say ‘no.’” Nevertheless, it is still a pretty chilling reply from an AI that has now been granted citizenship of one of the world’s advanced economies.
So what does the future hold for the world’s first robot to hold citizenship? Her creator hopes that Sophia will be able to pick up sophisticated social skills through more interaction with human beings. Elon Musk – like the ghost of Isaac Asimov – is probably hoping against hope that she doesn’t start making good on some of her more terrifying pronouncements.