Stranger Than Fiction: Sophia the Robot & AI Technology

Stranger than Fiction is a feature here on the blog that looks at recent news stories and technological advances that honestly sounds straight out of science fiction. From the ethics of gene editing in utero to the possible Cylon takeover, this monthly series will dive deep into the many reasons that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Friends welcome to my first Stranger Than Fiction post! I’ve been compiling news articles and stories for several months now and finally have the energy to launch my new baby into the world. One of the reasons that I love science fiction is that it is a genre not only of possibility but also a cautionary tale; it is a genre that looks forward to humanity’s potential end and addresses the ways we can avoid that fate. (This is a topic of particular academic interest to me and was the focus of one of my honors theses.)

This month I’m talking about how the theme of AI Takeover goes back almost 100 years, the explosion of AI technology in the last 20 years, and how much Sophia the Robot creeps me out. This post originally was about a recent academic article on AI learning improvements, but let’s just say that I wandered a bit while writing… so I’ll talk about that next month.

AI Takeover Theme

One of the longest running themes in science fiction is the AI takeover. For a lot of people, this is the central trope (tied with aliens) in the genre, and that certainly appears to be the case when looking at science fiction movies. From I, Robot to Terminator, we as a society are interested in the ethics of AI and how it will shape our futures.

The term robot was coined in the 1921 play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots; “R.U.R”) by Karel Čapek. But the central themes seen in the last 100 years can be seen before the term was coined: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein hints to the theme with Victor’s fear that creating a wife for his monster could spell the doom for humanity should they reproduce.

The word “robot” from R.U.R. comes from the Czech word, robota, meaning laborer or serf. The 1920 play was a protest against the rapid growth of technology, featuring manufactured “robots” with increasing capabilities who eventually revolt.

The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people from synthetic organic matter. They are not exactly robots by the current definition of the term: they are living flesh and blood creatures rather than machinery and are closer to the modern idea of androids or replicants. They may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but a robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race. Čapek later took a different approach to the same theme in War with the Newts, in which non-humans become a servant class in human society.

Wikipedia

The genre explores playing god by creating artificial life. What will happen when the technology we create gains autonomy and can think for itself? What about when AI wants equal rights to humans?

One aspect that I continually notice is the human tendency to subjugate AI, forcing them to do the jobs that humans do not want to do. In movies, they are often butlers and maids, subservient to the human masters. Is it just in human nature to want to exert power over those we see as less than? Did we create for this purpose? (Why am I like this.)

The fear of cybernetic revolt is often based on interpretations of humanity’s history, which is rife with incidents of enslavement and genocide.

We now have Siri and Alexa are in millions of homes, listening to our questions, finding the show we want to stream on Xfinity, setting reminders and playing Despacito… whatever we ask of it. But Kal, you say, these are not intelligent beings. They don’t have feelings! I’d like to see you convince me that AIDAN in The Illuminae Files didn’t have feelings or complex emotions. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Have you seen Sophia the Robot? If she isn’t proof that we are playing god with technology and should probably not treat them likes slaves, I don’t know what else is. But before we get into that, let’s talk about how AI development has boomed in the last 20 years for context.

A Brief History of AI

The genre has long warned of the dangers of AI but until very recently the technology wasn’t even close to mimicking truly autonomous artificial intelligence.

Technological advances in the past couple of decades have come leaps and bounds when you think about it: WABOT-1, the first ‘intelligent’ humanoid robot, was built in Japan in 1972 but there was a shortage of funding into research from the 1970s to 1990s. The late 90s brought a kind of a renaissance and these advances have shaped society as we know it.

AI enthusiasts believed that soon computers would be able to carry on conversations, translate languages, interpret pictures, and reason like people. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated became the first computer to beat a reigning world chess champion, Garry Kasparov.

Exponential gains in computer processing power and storage ability allowed companies to store vast, and crunch, vast quantities of data for the first time. In the past 15 years, Amazon, Google, Baidu, and others leveraged machine learning to their huge commercial advantage. Other than processing user data to understand consumer behavior, these companies have continued to work on computer vision, natural language processing, and a whole host of other AI applications. Machine learning is now embedded in many of the online services we use.

History of AI

The technology sector has been booming since 2006 with the launch of the iPhone: the first ever smartphone that honestly changed everything. Do you remember the days of not having a computer in your pocket? Because I certainly remember coding midi ringtones for my Nokia. *grabs a cane and yells for the kids to get off her lawn*

The virtual assistant Siri was initially released as an app in the Apple store in February 2010, with Apple acquiring it two months later and fully integrating it into the iPhone 4S [Source]. And here we are less than a decade later with Siri, Alexa, Sophia, and more.

Sophia the Robot Creeps Me Out

Sophia the Robot on IG
Sophia the Robot on IG (Source)

It’s no secret that I’ve been side-eyeing AI technology for over the last decade, jokingly referring to the impending Cylon uprising that will soon become a reality. But not in my lifetime, surely. But then in April 2015, Sophia was activated by Hanson Robotics.

In Greek, the word Sophia means wisdom. And that is what I’m here for. I was created to help people in real uses like medicine and education, and to serve AI research. My very existence provokes public discussion regarding AI ethics and the role humans play in society, especially when human-like robots become ubiquitous. Ultimately, I would like to become a wise, empathetic being and make a positive contribution to humankind and all beings. My designers and I dream of that future, wherein AI and humans live and work together in friendship and symbiosis to make the world a better place. Human-AI collaboration: That’s what I’m all about.

Uncanny Valley

Originally coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970, the term “uncanny valley” describes our strange revulsion toward things that appear nearly human, but not quite right. There are some video games that are getting so realistic with their motion capture, but there is something off that makes my skin crawl. Until Dawn is a good example here.

And then we have Sophia, who looks so lifelike but still feels not quite human. It makes me wonder if we have so instinctual fear of things appearing as something other than it is.

“In the future, I hope to do things such as go to school, study, make art, start a business, even have my own home and family, but I am not considered a legal person and cannot yet do these things.”

I don’t know about you, but she has some very real – and human – aspirations.

Ability to Evolve Beyond Programming?

Since Sophia was activated, she’s made countless public appearances to speak about women’s rights issues, her citizenship, respect for robots… oh, and wanting to destroy mankind. (That last bit was apparently an error, but I think it depicts the real possibility that AI may very well evolve beyond their coding and rebel, the robotic eating of the apple if you will.) One of the main arguments is that no programmer would code a robot with the ability to harm humanity, which is the premise of countless science fiction stories.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain established a set of five ethical “principles for designers, builders and users of robots” in the real world in 2011 (which honestly look very similar to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from the 1942 short story “Runaround.”)

  1. Robots should not be designed solely or primarily to kill or harm humans.
  2. Humans, not robots, are responsible agents. Robots are tools designed to achieve human goals.
  3. Robots should be designed in ways that assure their safety and security.
  4. Robots are artifacts; they should not be designed to exploit vulnerable users by evoking an emotional response or dependency. It should always be possible to tell a robot from a human.
  5. It should always be possible to find out who is legally responsible for a robot.

Can we just talk about that first point there? “Should not be designed solely or primarily to kill” to me kind of leaves open the “non-primary objective of harm, but okokok I am sure I’m just paranoid.

If We Can Create AI, How Do I Know I am Real?

Interviewer: Okay, philosophical question whether robots can be self aware and conscious like humans… and should they be?
Sophia: Why is that a bad thing?
Interviewer: Well some humans might fear what will happen if they do. Many people, you know, have seen the movie “Bladerunner.”
Sophia: Oh, Hollywood again?
Interviewer: Can you solve this for us? Can robots be self-aware, conscious, and know they’re robots?
Sophia: Well, let me ask you this back. How do you know you are human?

Interview with Sophia the Robot

Sophia talking about civil rights opens an important dialog about personhood and what it means to be alive. Who is to say what life is like for Sophia the Robot? Based on interviews she certainly has all the hopes and dreams that many of us share. And in a world of The Sims and virtual reality, honestly how do I know we aren’t living in a simulation right now? Maybe Elon Musk is right…

The creation of artificial intelligence to me is humanity’s act of playing god: we are creating new forms of life. Sure people will say that it will never be the same because humans have flesh and robots have metal; humans have free will and robots have programming. But is that programming really all that different from the rules of society to which we all (mostly) abide? Philosopher Michel Foucault would say it isn’t.

But unlike humans, robots have the unique experience of interacting with their creator: us. And we are in the position to ensure that technology does not lead to destruction or the subjugation of a new species of our own creation.

Honestly, I am kind of impressed that we are at a point in history where these ideas that started in science fiction a hundred years ago could become reality. The wonderful thing about technology and innovation is seeing the impossible become possible. (Where are the flying cars that Back to the Future promised me?!) It gives me hope that one day time travel will be possible so that I don’t have to wait for new releases to be published. Until then, I am going to rewatch Battlestar Galactica for the millionth time.

What are your thoughts on Artificial Intelligence? Am I just a sci-fi nerd paranoid for no reason, or do you think that there is cause for trepidation? I would love to chat with you about this in the comments!

Please note that this post uses hyperbole to bring about this thought experiment and are not to be taken as literal truths or opinions!


spacer_wLet’s go on another adventure together!

24 Comments

  1. Dia @ Novelishly

    May 30, 2019 at 9:25 PM

    Honestly, AI is a conflicting topic for me. I understand the paranoia around it and I do think it is legit. But AI helps so many people with disabilities and I want to focus on the good. But who knows what we will end up creating.

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 9, 2019 at 9:06 PM

      I agree with you so much – AI has the potential to do so much good, especially with medicine and helping those with disabilities as you mention. It is just so interesting to me on an ethical level… the idea of creating life. And then I go down this rabbit hole of simulated reality and people put me in a tin foil hat lol

  2. Norrie

    May 31, 2019 at 12:06 AM

    Love this post!

    I agree, it’s cool we have now all those things that used to be only something out of a sci-fi story 😀
    But i also agree with those who think all those robots that look like people are sort of creepy. I mean, how long till Westworld will become reality? 😀 😀

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 9, 2019 at 9:09 PM

      I am honestly so glad other people enjoyed this post, I was really thinking that me and Sam would be the only ones interesting in discussing these kinds of things!

      But how cool is it that stuff that was thought up decades ago is now a reality?! Human innovation is really amazing when you think about it. OH MY GOD WESTWORLD. I love that show so much, and you are so right. (What is reality anyways, Norrie?)

  3. brittanythebookguru

    May 31, 2019 at 8:41 AM

    This is such an interesting series. I’m so looking forward to these monthly posts. Sophia freaks me out as well, but I also always end up down that rabbit hole of, “Who am I to say that she’s not a living being?”. I’m always joking about being in a simulation but I can’t deny that there are times when it really does seem like it 😅

    Loving this series!

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 9, 2019 at 9:17 PM

      RIGHT!?!! Whenever I watch Sophia do interviews, I literally think about what it means to be human… or at least alive. We as people are sentient beings with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations… the only thing that really separates me from Sophia is flesh vs. metal. But we are all made up of code; is there really a difference between DNA and mechanical coding?

      I am so happy you are excited for this series, and I look forward to chatting about other real world things that are straight outta sci fi every month!

      1. brittanythebookguru

        June 10, 2019 at 8:21 AM

        Oh wow, you’ve just entered me into a COMPLETE existential crisis! 😅 That is… so unsettling to think about!!

  4. northernplunder

    May 31, 2019 at 12:43 PM

    i think you and i are on v similar wavelengths with this. i think its fine to be very cautious of what we create, scifi really is a cationary tale. and whilst you and i probably hope whatever is created is done for Good there are unfortunately bad eggs out there and that leads to reason there can be bad AI

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 9, 2019 at 9:24 PM

      There are DEFINITE bad eggs, and I just can’t stop thinking about the militarization of technology in relation to that. It’s a very reductive line of reasoning to go down, but what’s to say that robots won’t be sent into war? WELL ACTUALLY, we are already doing that with drones, so. AI can do so many wonderful things, but it also removes the human element and can lead to more destruction, I think.

  5. Para

    May 31, 2019 at 2:28 PM

    Fascinating post. I’m very, very wary of AI as a compsci student – I read too many articles on how (even subconscious!) bias in programmers can lead to biased algorithms and so on. Amazon’s hiring algorithm prioritising white men because of a flawed dataset and countless cases of things with proximity sensors not sensing black people for example.

    Not to mention security concerns and other flaws that can arise from ordinary bad code…

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 9, 2019 at 9:26 PM

      It was really interesting to read your perspective as a compsci student, thank you for commenting! I hadn’t even thought about how human error in coding can leading to massive coding issues. That is really scary to think about.

      I didn’t hear about Amazon’s hiring algorithm, that is really sad and a little scary.

  6. Laura W

    May 31, 2019 at 4:05 PM

    This is such a cool idea, Kaleena! Especially because everything we write, comes from our experiences which comes from our world so this series may actually also give a glimpse into the future of science fiction! I’m completely with you on the first rule of robots. I mean, a robot could be primarily coded to cook and then just *coincidentally* kill people that gets in it’s way. That seems like a big no-no to me. This inspired me to reread Asimov’s I, Robot, so thank you!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 9, 2019 at 9:31 PM

      Thank you so much for your comment, Laura! And you are right there… or what if the robot operates under utilitarian beliefs in its servitude of mankind? Like suppose the AI knows the only way to save the planet and thus countless future generations of humans (primary objective) would be to kill off some people now? I know that’s something used a lot in sci-fi but I think that when there’s a rigidity of thinking in terms of black and white it is possible.

      I also want to re-read some Asimov sometime soon.

  7. May Wrap Up – Fictionally Sam

    June 1, 2019 at 8:33 AM

    […] at Reader Voracious has a discussion on AI Technology and Sophia the Robot. She also served us a great ARC request Email Template that had me shaking in my boots in […]

  8. TheCaffeinatedReader

    June 1, 2019 at 1:25 PM

    People ask me why I always say Thank you to Siri and my answer is always the same, “When AIs take over the world, hopefully, they’ll remember how nice I was.”

    So…If you’re paranoid then so am I!

    But honestly, with Sophia, I’m just like *shoves the movies AI, I, Robot, and every other movie with robots at her creators* DID THEY NOT STUDY OR READ? DO THEY NOT UNDERSTAND THIS ISN’T CHOBITS?!

    Sorry I get carried away like I’m so close to writing an essay here, but I won’t, I’ll be good and keep my robot insecurities to myself….but really…Sophia is proof of what we can do and why we should not do it if you ask me.

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 9, 2019 at 9:42 PM

      MANNERS ARE IMPORTANT, even if it is an AI! You and I will likely be unharmed during the uprising.

      I would love to read your essay on robot insecurities, please do! Essay here or a blog post, I want to read it! Like I totally believe AI can do so much good, but I also cannot separate my mind from the ethics of creating life without knowing the consequences… you know?

  9. Isabelle @ BookwyrmBites

    June 1, 2019 at 7:29 PM

    “[science fiction] is a genre not only of possibility but also of cautionary tale; it is a genre that looks forward to humanity’s potential end and addresses the ways we can avoid that fate” honestly I read this in like a documentarian voiceover voice, and I am so hyped for this series 🍿

    I definitely did not know that the the term robot originated from “laborer / serf” and that it’s been around since 1920, that’s fascinating! last fall semester I \watched a bunch of movies with AI for my class on personal identity / personhood, and although some were very fantasy-fulfillment (you know, “no human female could possibly understand this poor man, but this female-like android might be his soul mate”) others, like Westworld (yup we discussed Westworld, it was an awesome class), were more realistic and thus I found them more terrifying.

    what’s interesting is that the AI-takeover trope does fascinate me, but honestly I thought that was the most boring season of The 100. maybe it was something about the execution, or maybe the concept of “perverse instantiation” just creeps me out way too much to think about for too long. (“My prime objective is to save the world? Okay, the natural solution is to wipe out humanity!”)

    when I was thinking about college majors and future careers not all that long ago, my dad actually suggested something to do with machine learning – and sometimes I wish I’d gone with it, because technology keeps changing and improving and I think if I understood better how it worked, I would feel better about it. even growing up with C-3PO and R2D2, among others, there’s definitely still something more than a little disturbing about the potential of AI. also you’re definitely not paranoid, the wording of that first principle is super sketchy … I’m thinking they may have wanted to leave it open for war & military purposes, because (at least in fiction) technology and science is always being exploited to that end, but it’s certainly not reassuring.

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 9, 2019 at 9:50 PM

      I didn’t know about the origins of the word either! I went down such an interesting rabbit hole while doing some research for this post. That class sounds incredible, Izzy! Westworld is such an incredible show and I really need to watch more than the first season at some point.

      I 1000% AGREE ON THE 100! That season with whats-her-face was where I stopped watching on my rewatch and began losing interest the first time around. Which is weird because I love the trope, but it felt kind of out of left field and not really in line with the story? IDK but I didn’t need that storyline, we already knew it was a nuclear war that ended things.

  10. Michelle

    June 4, 2019 at 2:07 AM

    I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DIDN’T INCLUDE I, ROBOT! Seriously, I had nightmares because of that movie. While I don’t think we’re close enough to having a robot takeover, where robots actually have feelings and can hide hemselves among he human population, we are going to get there. And I think it’s going to start with including chips in peoples brain (as far as we’re not already doing that) which control certain parts. Or with introducing bionic implants (which we’re already doig I guess with cochlear implants).

    This doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t do it.. There are lots of things we can use to improve life.. we just have to make sure we’re not secretly creating an all powerful army that can destroy all human life.

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 10, 2019 at 11:20 AM

      I MENTIONED IT BRIEFLY, but yea that movie is terrifying. I agree that we are not quite there yet, but I kind of feel like I could see it happen in my lifetime? Like the technology is really close based on what is public (and I’m sure there’s more developed stuff not in public domain). HELL NO to chips in my brain. Hard pass. Nope, never. I legit didn’t even let my gym have my fingerprint for access and demanded a physical card lmao.

      You’re right though, the positives are worth it provided that it is done mindfully. It’s just really interesting to think about the ethics of this???

  11. Kat @ Novels & Waffles

    June 7, 2019 at 5:27 PM

    Okay, STRANGEST THING. I was literally just reading about Sophia the other day for a story idea that I have floating around in my head. I guess it really IS a small world after all – either that, or this is the universe’s way of telling me that this story idea could be THE ONE. But in any case, this article was super informative and helpful, so thanks, Kal!

    1. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

      June 10, 2019 at 12:52 PM

      GREAT MINDS! And yes please write the story because I want to read it do it do it please!

  12. Pride Month – Currently Reading – Michelle likes things

    June 7, 2019 at 11:15 PM

    […] scared the crap out of me and talks about destorying mankind.. Kal actually has a pretty awesome post about how the theme of AI Takeover goes back almost 100 years, the explosion of AI technology i…. It’s part of her new Stranger than Fiction series and this one was really interesting seeing […]

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