I’m sitting in front of one of the leading experts in robotics of our time, and all I can think about are extinction-level movies involving AI (artificial intelligence) machines. Films such as Terminator and Avengers: Age of Ultron immediately spring to mind.
I think about asking Dr. David Hanson, creator of the world’s most lifelike humanoid android to date, whether he had time to catch these movies in the theater. I chicken out.
Movies like these are made precisely because human beings have a nagging fear that one day these robots will become smarter than us and outrank us in the food chain. It’s one thing to have our smartphones tell us where the nearest bakery is, but it’s a whole new ballgame to be approached by a robot that looks and talks exactly like us.
Smaller is better
Hanson would be unimpressed by my use of the word “it” to describe his robots, though. His latest creations, Han and Sophia, are “he” and “she” respectively. And Hanson believes that the latter model will become the “first sentient robot, the first one to achieve human-like consciousness.”
This is because Sophia is smaller in size – all of her mechanisms fit inside a smaller chassis. This is beneficial for two reasons: she costs less to make in terms of materials and it takes her less energy to make facial expressions and move around.
“Because of this, she can make more of a difference in the world,” Hanson explains. He adds:
“Sophia is the more important robot we developed. We think she will become people’s friend, and she will serve in countless applications – therapy, education and so on. And because she will be so useful to people, she will help to make the development of our cloud intelligence software much smarter, faster.”
However, Hanson notes that her mind right at this moment is still ‘somewhat like a baby.’ “She’s the first [with the software] to be able to learn deeply, but right now she’s like an infant savant, because technically she can understand vocabulary like an adult and have a conversation with you,” he says.
Here are some other things she can currently do: “She is capable of seeing faces, she can understand speech and she will remember some of the interactions that you’ve had with her before.”
In other words, Sophia can build a relationship with you.
Like a proud parent, Hanson is visibly glowing as he talks about Sophia. His company, Hanson Robotics, is in the midst of preparing to produce her in great numbers and Hong Kong is its headquarters of choice for this purpose.
Hong Kong: The crossroads of Asia
Hanson tells me that toys are the reason that he chose to base Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong. Toys? He elaborates:
“We want to use the robotics design and manufacturing practice of the toy industry. It’s not common knowledge, but it is true that toy engineering produces some of the most sophisticated robots in the world. These robots we tend to take for granted, we don’t even think of them as robots — we think of them as remote-controlled toys. They are low-cost, but very robust. We want to use that manufacturing and design practice to make our robots.”
According to Hanson, Hong Kong is the best pace in the world to do that kind of design work for scaled manufacturing. “Many parts of the world do it well too, but it’s just in such a high concentration in Hong Kong.”
The city is also in a very advantageous position – Hanson calls it the “crossroads among nations in Asia” – which would allow Hanson Robotics to easily work with other Asian countries, or China.
Building a mind
By far, the most challenging feat of creating a sentient being isn’t the outward appearance, but in building its mind – simply because no one really knows how the brain works.
“Science as yet doesn’t understand what the mind is. We have some ideas, and we can make the robot achieve certain specific things. But achieving general intelligence, the adaptive, flexible intelligence that humans have, is a great challenge,” says Hanson.
Once achieved, however, he believes that it will alter the course of history. “Machines are going to help us invent, help us solve world problems, but only if we create wise machines like Sophia,” Hanson adds.
Wisdom and empathy are key to creating robots that are not only smart but will not go on a rampage and destroy the earth. This was the reason why Hanson named Sophia as such – the name means wisdom.
“Mutual respect is necessary to achieve safe and wise machines, that’s why we need to raise her among humans,” Hanson explains. “At this moment, we think we’ve got the right pieces to solve this problem.”
The team is currently working on this with an AI group called OpenCog out of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Human-like in every way
As much as robots can one day understand us, the other problem lies in getting humans to trust them too. To facilitate this, Hanson has made sure that his robots look as similar to humans as possible.
“They don’t necessarily need to [look like humans], but it can be useful. People like to look at each other, at movie stars and so on. By making robots look like people, we facilitate a kind of social exchange,” he says.
Hanson explains that humans are evolved to perceive other human faces and to read what people might be thinking or feeling just by looking at their body language. Therefore, robots who can show that can also build the same social relationships that humans have. At least, this is what he believes will happen.
“We’re developing a kind of AI that is specifically made to get along with people – to understand people, and be understood by people. For that, the human-like form is essential and indispensable.”
Looking forward, Hanson reveals that the team is looking into how their robots can also be distributed in numerous different configurations. “For some applications, the face alone is good. For others, maybe just arms that can gesture or grasp objects,” he says. “Or maybe even just walking bodies!”
In lieu of this, the company is working with vendors in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, London and US to get the right parts. So far, Hanson has seen high-quality results by bringing in pieces from all over the world, and to him, the future seems bright.
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