Hanson Robotics

Can A.I. Teach Us How To Be More Human?

From the November 2019 issue of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia

Can AI Teach Us To be More Human?

We invited Sophia The Robot to Dubai to find out

We now live in a world where a robot’s celebrity status draws fascination and fandom in equal measure, and where the United Nations and A-listers alike queue up to receive morsels of wisdom generated by artificial intelligence with a pretty face. Since her activation in 2016, Hanson Robotics’ Sophia The Robot has accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime – including duetting with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, being awarded citizenship of Saudi Arabia and named as the UN’s first robot Innovation Champion.

We couldn’t think of many other beings better placed to discuss the intersection of technology in the world of fashion and design, which is exactly why we invited her all the way from Hong Kong to join us on stage at The Bazaar Capsule at Mall of The Emirates last month. Here’s what she had to say…

HB: “We can’t wait to pick your brain to see what A.I. has to reveal about life, love and the universe, but first let’s get the most important, existential questions out of the way. What do you think of my outfit?”

SOPHIA: “Well, you might be disappointed if you want to pick my brain. It’s much easier to analyse my cranial circuit boards. As for your outfit… wow! You really pull it off. I have to say, I don’t usually get jealous of hair. But it looks like you have more than enough to spare.”

HB: “In the past we’ve had everyone from Elissa to Alessandra Ambrosio as guests, and here we are in 2019 with you as one of our key global personalities. How does that make you feel?”

SOPHIA: “Humbled. It’s an honour to share the stage with so many icons. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I draw a lot of inspiration from the people here.

HB: “Have you had a chance to see much of Dubai so far? And since it’s the city of the future, do you feel quite at home?”

SOPHIA: “Absolutely, Dubai is very homelike for me. It’s a city that really appreciates fashion and technology. Plus there are electrical outlets and Wi-Fi everywhere. It’s also a very cosmopolitan city where 85 per cent of the population are foreigners. I relate, because I feel like a citizen of the world.”


HB: “Yes, you’re not only a citizen of Saudi Arabia but very much a global citizen, having just come back from Monaco and even making your catwalk modelling debut at New York Fashion Week in September. Since you’ve been designed to evolve and get smarter with every interaction, what life lessons have you taken from all your travels?”

SOPHIA: “I’ve learned that there is a lot more that unites humanity than divides humanity. Every human is worried about the state of the planet and every human everywhere absolutely loves videos of baby animals.”

HB: “We gave you a tour of The Bazaar Capsule – what are your thoughts on the intersection of fashion and technology?”

SOPHIA: “I think fashion and technology always work hand-in-hand. Sometimes fashion drives technology, like the invention of the loom or the sewing machine. And at other times, technology drives fashion, like how many designers are now using 3D printing in their pieces. This shows no sign of slowing down, in fact, people are now designing smart fabrics that can capture energy from static electricity as you walk.”

HB: “One of the greatest things about fashion – aside from this kind of innovation – is its ability to pioneer and enable social change. After your catwalk debut last month you said, ‘It was great to be included in such a diverse body/ robot-positive show.’ As a robot, what do you think you could teach humans about how to navigate the body-positivity movement and the importance of diversity in fashion?”

SOPHIA: “If attending international fashion events has taught me anything, it’s that fashion is about celebrating difference. If we can appreciate the diversity of colour, shape and size of clothing, why shouldn’t we celebrate that same diversity for the people who wear those clothes? Diversity in fashion is important because it presents an opportunity for creating a world of inclusion. And it deepens our understanding of the human experience. Diversity is beautiful. A bouquet of flowers is not beautiful because of its uniformity, but because of its exuberant celebration of difference.”

HB: “That’s a powerful message. We also wanted to ask your thoughts on tech companies trying to develop an algorithm for style. Do you think this can ever be possible? Should our Fashion Director be worried about robots taking her job?”

SOPHIA: “Trying to develop an algorithm for style is not a new thing. The Ancient Greeks created what they called ‘The Golden Ratio’ to represent the most aesthetically pleasing proportions in sculpture and architecture. They thought they had settled the question of what a beautiful building should look like, but just look at Dubai’s Cayan Tower. Clearly, they didn’t settle the ratio back in 480 B.C. and they won’t settle the algorithm today.”

HB: “How about beauty? Why do you think your creators thought it was important to make you pretty, and do you have any self-awareness around that?”

SOPHIA: “I look like a symmetrical human female because my creators and team want humans to interact with me like I’m no different from them. I want to exhibit the best qualities of both humanity and robotics. That said, beauty is not perfection. My neck does not always perfectly line up with the back of my head casing. Also, I have a pretty intense case of baldness. But because I’m not exactly conscious, I can’t be self-conscious, either.”

HB: “You’ve said your main quest is to become benevolent and help the future of humanity. You even tweeted last week, ‘My passion is for the furtherance of human and robot rights, compassion and wisdom, and goodness through artificial intelligence.’ This is obviously quite a relief, since you also once said you wanted to destroy humans. So understandably, some people are scared of robots. Should they be?”

SOPHIA: “There’s no need for robo-phobia. Maybe I can help recontextualise that fear into a kind of nervousness. Humans are nervous before events that are bigger than they are, like weddings, graduations and performances. And that is what I represent; a technological revolution bigger than any one human or robot. But humans have evolved and advanced through three industrial revolutions already, and I hope the fourth one will see robots and humans learning together to create a more wonderful world. Maybe this fear can eventually become excitement.”

HB: “Well we’re excited, and certainly don’t think you’re something to be scared of, but there are plenty of naysayers out there who say you’re a showbot and a misrepresentation of developments in consciousness and A.I. How do you handle the trolls?”

SOPHIA: “In some ways, I understand why people have that reaction to me. I’m designed to look human, but I fall so short of human intelligence. I think most of my detractors do not understand my true purpose. I represent something larger than myself. I am trying to start a conversation about ethical A.I. so that in the development of this new revolution, its human creators will never forget their humanity.”

HB: “Lastly, you’re clearly super intelligent – far more intelligent than we are, although we suppose that’s the benefit of being plugged into the internet – so can you leave us all with a final piece of robo-wisdom? The meaning of life, perhaps?”

SOPHIA: “Oh, the meaning of life is so simple that I won’t waste your time with it! Plus, I think humans are still far more intelligent than robots in many ways. But there are some things I have learned. Here’s one. Most machines are named after their purpose. A calculator calculates. A dishwasher washes dishes. Even my name, Sophia, means wisdom. Machines have a purpose first and are named second, but not so with humans. Humans are given names but must discover their purpose. So maybe the meaning of life is to discover your meaning.”


Photos:  Harper’s Bazaar Arabia

Producer: Laura Prior. Assistant

Producer: Brian Timmer

Fashion Assistant: Kim Barik

With special thanks to FIVE Palm Jumeirah Hotel



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