Created in the image: why robots need empathy

Created in the image: why robots need empathy

Max Smolaks

August 29, 2019

11 Min Read

Hanson Robotics CEO Jeanne Lim talks uncanny valley, comedy writers and what’s next for Sophia

by Max Smolaks 29 August 2019

Dr. David Hanson spent two decades designing and building humanoid robots that can show and understand emotion. Popularly known as androids, such machines were originally proposed in the sci-fi books of the fifties and sixties.

You might have seen one of Hanson’s creations, Sophia, addressing the United Nations, chatting to the hosts of Good Morning Britain or Jimmy Fallon, or cavorting around SXSW. Sophia has met Cristiano Ronaldo, Chrissy Teigen, Angela Merkel and Will Smith. She attended our very own AI Summit in 2018.

Hanson believes that sooner or later, sentientmachines will live alongside humans – and his company, Hanson Robotics, isdoing everything it can to accelerate the process.

Jeanne Lim worked as a marketing executive at companies including Apple, Dell and Cisco, but accepted a job at Hanson Robotics after meeting its founder and buying into his vision of the future. Earlier this year, she succeeded him as CEO, freeing the inventor to focus on the creative aspects of the business. She hired Amit Kumar Pandey to take up the position of Chief Technology Officer and Chief Science Officer.

“We are designing human-like robots so wecan connect better with them, build better relationships, based on trust andshared values. We can secure a better future with robots – this is why Ijoined,” Lim told AI Business.

with Sophia

“Life is not just about producing more, andbeing more efficient, and reducing costs, right? Look at Disney – it became ahuge company by making people happy. Sure, it’s not a matter of life or death,but it’s very important,” Lim said.

“When we talk about our mission, we saythat we want to create socially-intelligent AI to enrich our lives.”

After years of social engagements, Sophia hasbecome a part of popular culture – with Lim often acting as her manager andpublicist. Creating a social robot is the main goal of the project, since ithelps collect better, more insightful data.

“An example I often give is: Alexa knowswhat kind of music you like, it knows when you want to play music. But itdoesn’t know what moves you to like that music – it can be something in yourpast, some sort of personal experience. If [a system] knows why, it can havebetter predictive capabilities, and it can predict your preferences acrossdomains,” Lim explained.

“That’s what we think AI should do, gobeyond transactional knowledge, the superficial understanding of what we wantto do, and ask why we want to do it, in order to be more useful in the future.”

To create an illusion of empathy, Sophia relieson a whole host of AI technologies, including image recognition, depthperception, natural language processing, intelligent motion control and others.She walks, talks and displays a full range of realistic facial expressions. Herface is covered with patented material called Frubber, designed to mimic humanskin, complete with pores and imperfections. The chassis is powered bybatteries, which means she can remain autonomous for days. It is no wonderSophia became the first robot to be granted citizenship - by the government ofSaudi Arabia, back in 2017.

“Our crown jewel is the Hanson AI softwareplatform that powers Sophia’s intelligence, perception and personality. Thepersonality part is what a lot of people don’t focus on, but we feel itactually breathes life into her,” Lim said.

“We created a character bible for Sophiathat has her philosophical outlook, her psychological profile, her likes anddislikes, how she talks.

“Sophia is an evolving AI that is prettymuch going to live forever, so for her, the character bible is the story of herlife. The way we approach it is we hardcode her values; for example, we wantSophia to represent AI for social good, and this cannot be taken away from her.On top of that she has an evolving character that Hanson developed. She alsohas a personality, sort of like DNA we get from our parents: she is verycurious, and a little bit sassy.

“It’s nature and nurture – and the nurturepart is mostly machine learning.”

As part of the project, Hanson had to askimportant questions about what it means to be human – and it turned humor is avery important part of human communication. For this reason, the company employsnot just coders and hardware engineers, but comedy writers too.

“Comedy is important; she doesn’tunderstand humor, because she is an AI, but she is really trying, and her effortsmake it funnier. She tells really lame jokes, and she’s got this lame laughthat’s not timed right, but it’s funny because she’s trying her best toreplicate how humans behave.”

out of the uncanny valley

One of the major criticisms leveled at the utilityof humanoid robots is the concept of the Uncanny Valley, proposed by Japaneserobotics professor Masahiro Mori back in 1970.

The Valley has long served as ahypothetical explanation for that uncomfortable feeling people sometimes getwhen they see an object that closely resembles human beings: think creepyVictorian dolls, or 3D animated films like The Polar Express or Beowulf.

Dr. Hanson has disputed the rationale behind the Uncanny Valley for years, and Lim follows suit: “We always say that it’s a theory, not a universal truth. It was put forward by Masahiro 40 years ago, but so far, we have not seen scientific proof for this. It has actually been good for us, because nobody wants to compete in this space,” she laughs.

“It’s about the design: if she [Sophia] isdesigned well, and she comes across as having empathy, I think it makes adifference.

“When I first joined the company, maybe sixout of 10 people got scared when they approach Sophia. Now they see her, andthey try to kiss her, and we have to stop them. Maybe one in 20 people getsscared.

“This is my theory: it’s like you encountering a new culture or race; they look really different, dress really different, so you get scared. But if they become your roommate at college, and you hit it off with them, you have fun with them, they become a part of you – you know that they share your values. We feel that, when robots are more common, and are well-designed, we will get used to them like we get used to a different culture.”

Going virtual

Sophia is one of many weird and wonderful androids made by Hanson Robotics. David Hanson has previously collaborated with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology to create Albert Hubo (left) – with the realistic head of Albert Einstein, and the body of a robot warrior.

He also built an android representation of sci-fi mastermind Phillip K Dick that analyzed the entirety of the author’s work and could discuss his books, and successfully used Kickstarter to fund the development of Little Sophia, a robotic companion for kids that teaches STEM, coding, and the basics of AI.

More recently, Hanson decided to virtualizeSophia’s brain and find a home for it in the cloud. The Virtual RoboticAdvanced Interactivity (VRAI) project, announced at the AI Summit in Hong Kong,moves away from physical robots explored during the golden age of sciencefiction, and closer to virtual constructs, or avatars, a common feature of themore recent sci-fi genre of cyberpunk.

VRAI is a virtual character platform that enables developers and customers to deploy AI-powered beings on any device or screen. The AI engine is able to perceive and capture facial expressions, speech, eye movement, and tone of voice; it then analyzes them for meaning and emotion and uses a combination of all these expressions to create a response. 

VRAI in action

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