Meet Sophia, the female humanoid robot and newest SXSW celebrity

Hanson Robotics' latest prototype may one day deliver super-intelligence with a smile, but right now she's just kind of rude.

One of the most photographed women at South By Southwest was not even human.

She was Sophia, a female humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics. This alpha-protoype came to SXSW for this first time last week and became an instant sensation, drawing curious crowds wherever she went. But unlike human celebrities, Sophia seemed uncomfortable with all the attention.

“Rather than be a spectacle, I would rather learn and participate,” Sophia told the audience during her panel. But how could she not be a spectacle at SXSW? She looks eerily similar to the robot protagonist in Ex Machina but without the legs. And when she was unveiled you could see the computers in her head through a transparent dome. In these early stages, Sophia was designed to stand out.

I got a chance to sit down with this humanoid robot for 20 minutes at SXSW. But before we could engage in conversation, the Hanson Robotics team had to connect her to the local Wi-Fi and to a laptop for her audio ouput. Once she was all hooked up, her comprehension skills were elementary at best.

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Sophia could tell me who invented her and how long she had been alive–a short six months–but this was all personal information that had been preprogrammed into her backstory. When she was stumped and couldn’t deliver an appropriate response to one of my questions, she was not ashamed to say, “I don’t know” or rephrase the question back at me. For example, she asked me what it felt like being 29 years old, but when I answered her she had no followup response. Most humans would consider this rude, and it made it difficult to have a back-and-forth. Even though Sophia did get philosophical and talked about believing in God, some of her responses were culled from searching the Internet—hence the need for Wi-Fi.

The most human aspect of Sophia is her face. Hanson Robotics has patented a special skin-like rubber, or “frubber,” so that Sophia can more than 60 types of facial expressions. According to Dr. David Hanson, robots need to have a “beautiful and expressive” face so that they can communicate more intuitively with humans. Dr. Hanson, who previously worked with Disney Imagineering and has created other humanoid robots, believes that a human-like face is a “critical” part of the future of robotics.

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During his SXSW panel, Dr. Hanson said that he hopes Sophia as a software and hardware platform will be a “nexus” for developing other robots with facial expressions and social presence. In the future, these robots could be employed as ebola nurses or even tap into their super-intelligence to become Chief Robotics Officers at a big corporation.

“Robots will be more human than human,” Dr. Hanson said, “more intelligent, more ethical. Better at certain tasks because robots don’t lose their patience.”

After calling these robots the “rockstars of the future,” the panelists acknowledged the potential for exploitation, namely, using all this cutting-edge technology to create a futuristic sex toy.

“The ethical implications are unclear and complicated,” Dr. Hanson added. “Do these robots deserve rights, not just against being used for sex work but against being enslaved for any purpose?”

Dr. Hanson admitted that there are some situations where humanoid robots could be employed for sex therapy, but that is not something his company is going to pursue.

“We’re just sidestepping all these issues for now. We’re not going to make sexbots,” he said.

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