WBP and Sophia the Humanoid: Big News!

WBP and Sophia the Humanoid: Big News!

By Nicoletta Iacobacci, member of the Executive Committee of WBP

The first time I met a humanoid was in February 2014 at Singularity University (SU). I was taking the Executive Course, and other than being completely taken by classes and lectures on exponentially growing technologies, I had time to spend in the SU Lab. I could experience hands-on all the newest, most innovative technologies at the time, like extracting your DNA and placing it in a small vial, 3D printing a chocolate gadget (and then eat it!), and here it was, NAO: the smallest and most human-like machine ever built. NAO was sitting down, it followed me with its eyes and said, “Hi Nicoletta, how are you?” (It had been pre-programmed, unbeknownst to me). That took me by surprise, to say the least.

From programmable to social humanoid robots

NAO was one of the first autonomous, programmable humanoid robots, and has become a standard in education and research. When I took it in my arms, I had an acute feeling which is still hard to explain and that I had never felt before. It’s not the tenderness you feel for your pet, nor the emotion or the familiarity you feel with your fellow human… It was a mixture of excitement, fun, and fear of the unknown. I was hooked. I followed it, trying to further understand its feature and capabilities, and I had it for the opening the 4th TEDxTransmedia event I curated. If I am being honest, I seriously considered buying it.

A few months later, I discovered that NAO had a bigger, more autonomous and functional brother, PEPPER, the first social humanoid.

I immediately wanted to meet it, because it seemed so friendly, and so fun to be with. On top of that, he could recognize your five basic emotions, and behave according to your mood. Today PEPPER is quite accepted and used worldwide with elderly people and as a welcoming agent who can inform and guide visitors in an innovative way.

I met PEPPER in Zurich. This time again, in a more powerful way, I felt a mixture of enthusiasm and humbleness. Even if the machine was programmed, it seemed to have its own dimension. When it looks in your eyes – because it does – even though it has a brilliant, mechanical gaze, it seems to see right through you.

Certainly, PEPPER makes you think. Especially now that we are trying to create a system programmed to genuinely be a brain, with mental faculties like thinking, recognizing, understanding, feeling, solving problems, and above all else, being self-aware.

What do social humanoids mean for artificial intelligence?

Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI would be an agent that is as smart as a human across the board—a machine that can execute any intellectual task we can do. While AGI is still in its infancy, there are some cost-benefit considerations relating to whether the development of it ought to be accelerated or slowed. The setting up of initial conditions—in particular, the selection of a top-level goal for this system—is of the utmost importance. Why? Besides the fact that, for the first time, we would have to learn how to relate to an entity that is alive but different, it could easily lead to ASI (artificial superintelligence) a hypothetical system that is able to think better and faster than the sharpest and most gifted of human minds.

We haven’t gotten there yet, our Artificial Intelligence (AI) today is a little more than a newborn child. But it is getting smarter. It can recognize objects, translate speech in real time, write articles, paint pictures or even write music.

My experience with robots is not over, on the contrary.

In a couple of weeks, I will visit Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong and meet Sophia, the most famous android in the world. Sophia is a social robot, designed to get smarter over time. She – because it is a “she” – is being modelled in part after Audrey Hepburn and in part based on David Hanson’s wife.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia granted Sophia citizenship and she became the first humanoid to have a regular, human passport. Today, Sophia is becoming a spokesperson (we’re not used to the term “spokesrobot” yet) on women’s rights.

Sophia the Humanoid to attend the WBP Forum

I am particularly excited to confirm that Sophia will be one of the speakers at the International Forum on Women’s Brain and Mental Health, in June 2019. In Zurich, she will present “her” arguments during the panel on AI and gender bias.

At the Women’s Brain Project (WBP), we strive to engage with all sectors and stakeholders to stimulate global discussion on gender and sex determinants of female vulnerability to brain and mental disease, as well as gender bias in science. Integrating novel technologies, such as AI, but also elements important to precision medicine, is essential to find constructive and scalable solutions.


Who better than one of the most developed AI “personas” to engage in a discussion on how to reduce, minimize, and eventually eliminate gender stereotypes and bias in historical and archival data?

Sophia’s father, David Hanson, believes that sentient agents, with “a sense of desire for autonomy, as well as a curiosity and awareness of one’s state,” won’t happen before 2050.

Before then, we can experience Sophia, challenge her, and learn with her. We can also study her intellectual growth, trying to be vigilant. I’m not very sure that if and when Sophia becomes sentient, she will tell us.

For an opportunity to see Sophia live, register now for the WBP Forum taking place in Zurich on 8-9 June 2019. Early bird rates apply until 28 March 2019.

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