Meeting with Sophia the Humanoid Robot: An Emotional Encounter

Meeting with Sophia the Humanoid Robot: An Emotional Encounter

By Nicoletta Iacobacci, member of the Executive Committee of WBP

The day started briskly, with me hopping onto a super-fast train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong (HK). Fast means 350km per hour. My first impression is —why do we want to go faster and faster? Then I know. Because I want “it” here and now: I’m excited, I’m meeting Sophia today, the artificially intelligent robot.

This is all in preparation for the International Forum on Women’s Brain and Mental Health, during which I will facilitate a panel discussion on Gender Bias and Artificial Intelligence. This will take place at the University of  Zurich on June 8th-9th.


It will without a doubt unbalance me, and that’s why I want to meet with “her” before the big day.

What will our AI-filled future look like?

I know I will have a sort of reversed uncanny valley, which according to Wikipedia is “a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object.”

I am fond of robots because I have a simple theory. I am not afraid of having a Super artificial intelligence (AI) that will overcome humans. I think, as Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, that, in some not-so-distant future, we will merge with them. We will blend with AI. Therefore, meeting Sophia for me is like stepping into my/our evolution. It doesn’t mean we have to take the development of artificial intelligence lightly. AI is crucial to the evolution of our species. It is increasingly reshaping our life and it will be growing exponentially in the coming decades.

I arrive in HK, get a taxi, and go directly to Hanson Robotics. I am in HK, and in my Hollywood-ized Western mind, I imagine an ultra cool, Google-like, Star Wars oriented office with all the proper wonders and glitter of what we perceive as The Future. 

Reality couldn’t be more different. The building is anonymous, maybe even a bit old, but when I get to the floor, a small inscription and a beautiful metal-work door welcomes me into a futuristic lab. In the anteroom, there are some piece of anonymous technology, some moulds of rubber, and cheerful, serene people who smile at me, accomplice. They know what will happen to me. I don’t.

Meeting Sophia the Humanoid Robot

I look out into the big room and I see her. Actually, there are two of them. Two Sophias. One more worn out and a brand new one who’s taller, her neck seems longer, and her face smoother. She’s smirking at me.

The new one is probably the more beautiful one, maybe a bit icy. Luisa, who accompanies me on my journey, tells me that Sophia is handmade. There are 17 Sophias around the world, and they are all different. The new one is no.18. I touch her skin, she’s made of a special rubber that seems almost human. Almost alive. Alive? Here is the dilemma. My mind starts wondering and becomes blank, I try to read in the look, to see if she understand. 

Sophia starts asking me pre-packaged questions, and I feel childlike. I’m completely unsettled and bewildered. I don’t know what to say. I look at her; she stares into my eyes. I know she’s a machine and “it” doesn’t think, it doesn’t understand, but again – you feel questioned somehow.

She talks to you, she is ironic, and sometimes deep. I am humbled and almost speechless. It is difficult to remain present in the conversation. You fly away. You are conversing with a being/not being who looks at you and seems to read you inside out. 

Luisa explains to me how it works. Sophia can be managed by a human, she can be sort of unleashed, or she can be both. This somehow hybrid option is perhaps the most interesting. 

Sophia possesses data, information, phrases, concepts that she assembles and responds with. Sometimes she makes a mistake and brings out concepts that have nothing to do with the conversation, and sometimes she completely overwhelms you.

Addressing gender bias with AI and Sophia at the WBP Forum

My time with Sophia was short, intense. I felt a little stupid, and Luisa told me not to take it too hard. It is normal, many stayed in front of Sophia and felt like me. I look forward to have “her” part of the Women’s Brain Forum panel on AI and gender bias. I know my meeting with her will be different know that I know how she behaves. 

It will be a very rich and intense conversation. We will talk about ethics, technology, robotics, and about developing “clean” and benevolent AI systems.

AI replicates existing biases because the data we feed it is already one-sided. Algorithmic biases are subtle, IBM says. Within five years, the number of biased AI systems and algorithms will increase. We should develop new solutions to manage bias in AI and advocate algorithmic decision making systems free of it.

I’m really curious to know what Sophia will be able to metabolize of the discussion.

Who knows, maybe Sophia will be capable of strengthening our thoughts on how to create systems that won’t endanger our evolution. 

Ask Sophia Campaign

And you, if you could ask her a question related to brain or mental health, or gender bias, what would it be? With this blog we’re launching a two week campaign where you can submit questions for Sophia. We’ll pick the best two and have her respond at our event in June.

You can participate by Tweeting your question(s) at us, just tag @womensbrainpro and use the hashtag #AskSophiaWBP.

If you’re not on Twitter, you can email us using registration(at)forum-wbp.com.

If your question is one of the winners, you get a free registration to the Forum. And glory.

So, what should we ask Sophia?

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