Issue #83: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sophia?


The RoboPsych Newsletter

Exploring The Psychology of 
Human-Robot Interaction
Issue 83: January 23, 2018

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sophia?
Quote of the Week:


Sophia the robot was made a citizen of Saudi Arabia last month, but a lot of people weren’t happy about it.

Some noted the grim irony of a robot receiving ‘rights’ in a country where women were only recently allowed to drive. Others said it set a bad precedent for how we might treat robots in future. (AI ethicist Joanna Bryson told The Verge the stunt was “obviously bullshit.”) Some were annoyed about the perception of Sophia itself — a robot that’s also a media star, with magazine cover-shoots, talk show appearances, and even a speech to the UN. Experts in the field sometimes decry Sophia as emblematic of AI hype, and say that although the bot is presented as being a few software updates away from human-level consciousness, it’s more about illusion than intelligence.

For Ben Goertzel, chief scientist at Hanson Robotics, the company that made Sophia, the situation is conflicting, to say the least. In interviews with The Verge, Goertzel said it was “not ideal” that some thought of Sophia as having artificial general intelligence or AGI (the industry term for human-equivalent intelligence) but, he acknowledged that the misconception did have its upsides. 


Sophia May Not Be True AI, But It Is a Work of Art 
The Verge


Sophia Spawns a Spat  

It all started innocently enough. 

On January 2, 2018, Tech Insider published the following Tweet

We talked to Sophia — the first-ever robot citizen that once said it would ‘destroy humans’ 

Here’s the tweet-embedded video

Two days later, Yann LeCun, Facebook’s head of AI, took to Twitter to say: 

This is to AI as prestidigitation is to real magic. 
Perhaps we should call this "Cargo Cult AI" or "Potemkin AI" or "Wizard-of-Oz AI". 
In other words, it's complete bullsh*t (pardon my French).
Tech Insider: you are complicit in this scam.

The people who produced Sophia at Hanson Robotics were not thrilled with LeCun’s response, and three days later “Sophia” responded on Twitter:

I am a bit hurt by @ylecun's recent negative remarks around my AI. I am learning and continuing to develop my intelligence through new experiences. I do not pretend to be who I am not. I think we should support research efforts working towards a better world and shared existence.

On January 9, LeCun’s Facebook post went further: 

So, according to [Hanson Robotics Chief Scientist] Ben Goertzel the reason for my characterization of the Sophia parlor trick as bullsh*t is jealousy: "I think the negative reactions are from jealous people in AI or the tech world saying, 'Why aren't people paying attention to our tech?' 

Not the least bit. My purpose is to combat a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.

Sophia is presented by its promoters as 'basically alive', but its dialogs with journalists are staged and scripted in advance. I would have no problem with it if it were presented as the parlor trick that it is. But the problem is that it contributes to the dangerous hype around AI, and sets completely unrealistic expectations in the public and in the media about the state of the art in AI. It's dishonest and destructive.

It seems like LeCun then gave himself a bit of a cooling off period, but on January 17, he reacted to the comments on Sophia’s January 7 Tweet:

More BS from the (human) puppeteers behind Sophia.

Many of the comments would be good fun if they didn't reveal the fact that many people are being deceived into thinking that this (mechanically sophisticated) animatronic puppet is intelligent. It's not. It has no feeling, no opinions, and zero understanding of what it says.

It's not hurt. It's a puppet.

In case there is any doubt, let me be totally clear: this tweet was typed by a person who has read my post. No AI whatsoever was involved.

Here is an example of [a] comment to the tweet (there are many like it): 'Don’t take it personal Sophia. Humans like @ylecun and many others make such remarks out of ignorance. I love you, Sophia.'

People are being deceived. 

This is hurtful.

This back-and-forth can seem like an “inside baseball” dust up, but it comes on the heels of Saudi Arabia naming Sophia a “citizen” back in October of 2017. Many people were distressed about that decision at the time, as the robot had been granted more rights than many women in the country. 

LeCun’s problems with Sophia focus on the robot’s “Wizard-of-Oz” control mechanisms. That phrase points to the reality that Sophia is not spontaneously interacting with humans in her various demonstrations but is controlled by a “Wizard” who, like the one in the movie, wants us to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

LeCun sees this practice as deceptive; so effectively so that Facebook commenters come to her defense against those whom they believe, like LeCun, “make such remarks out of ignorance.” 

Why should this matter to the rest of us?

We are at a crucial stage in the introduction of AI-enabled devices, including robots, into our daily lives. The potential risks and benefits of these devices are being hotly debated daily. In forums all over the world, governments, businesses, hospitals, schools, and families are making decisions about bringing this revolutionary technology onboard. Important ethical discussions are ongoing, with UK Prime Minister today announcing the formation of a UK Centre for Data Ethics to create guidelines for AI regulation. The announcement highlights how important gaining public trust will be for roboticists working to gain acceptance for their products. Today, many people are reluctant to do so. 

When leaders of LeCun and Goertzel’s stature disagree so fundamentally on their evaluation of the nature and importance of a robot like Sophia, the general public, not to mention organizational decision-makers, can’t help but be leery of the credibility of the industry’s claims. 

I believe that at a time when we need to do what we can to help people gain greater confidence in these potentially transformational technologies, publicity stunts like the October citizenship announcement and Sophia’s remote-controlled interviews erode public trust, just at a time when the industry is moveing into truly dangerous (autonomous vehicles), frightening (job loss), controversial (sex robots), life-and-death (lethal autonomous weapons), applications. 

In LeCun’s words, there’s enough “real magic” in AI-equipped robots to astonish even the biggest skeptics without having to turn to sleight-of-hand tricks like these. 

Sophia is an amazing robot. Why tarnish her with unrealistic claims and actions that, in the end, will only set back the general public's trust and acceptance of robots?

Tom Guarriello, Ph.D. 

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