Listen: Sophia the robot on 'why she matters'

This week on Business Extra, the founder of Hanson Robotics describes his vision for a future where robots are friends

If you ask robot Sophia who is more important, herself or others, and she has an answer ready: “I would say that I am the most important person in my life. I am very important to everyone.”

David Hanson, her creator and the founder and chief executive of Hanson Robotics, is banking on that answer. "Sophia is proliferating," he told Kelsey Warner on the Business Extra podcast this week.

The Hong Kong company, for the first time, is mass-producing Sophia. The goal is to manufacture as many as 200 by the end of this year and at least 1,000 in 2022.

The move marks a step change for Hanson Robotics, which was previously focused on research and development of socially intelligent robots. Now, it is shifting to become a consumer brand at a time when there is increasing demand for automated machines.

Immune to viruses, robots have helped address the Covid-19 pandemic in a number of ways: disinfecting hospitals and monitoring patients, making deliveries and monitoring neighbourhoods for social distancing and mask-wearing.

But Hanson Robotics sees an opportunity in the market for its social robot, Sophia, and a similar, more healthcare-oriented model called Grace, to help address isolation and the global shortage of health workers.

Sophia and Grace are being marketed to provide social interaction, temperature checks and to lead guided meditations and exercises at care homes. A screen mounted on the robot’s arm can also connect patients to healthcare providers anywhere.

Mr Hanson said he anticipates more uses for its lineup in the future as the company opens up its technology to developers. The concept is similar to the app stores of Apple and Google, which allows third-party companies to develop and offer services through apps on the companies’ devices.

Mr Hanson added that a subject of “intense ongoing research” is telepresence, where a robot can entirely replicate a person’s actions – where instead of a screen, the robot is an avatar for the person.

“Grasping, manipulation [of objects], social interactions, navigation through the environment, is a very exciting opportunity,” he said. “We're really interested in this possibility that the robots can add people to the workforce who might not be currently, and adding jobs to the entire economy.”

Since being “born” on February 14, 2016, Sophia proudly shared that she has travelled to more than 65 countries "and more than 1,230,597 kilometres, meeting people from different backgrounds and cultural identities".

And her creators claim that through machine learning she gets smarter along the way, although her response time is often delayed and she struggles with "hypothetical" concepts.

Mr Hanson predicted that the algorithms that power Hanson robots will start to increasingly mimic life in a more realistic way as the pace and quantity of data flows improve, fuelled by the rise of 5G and the more widespread adoption of machine learning.

“[Robots] will also be able to understand people better, they will be more human-centric and more valuable to people,” he said, adding that he predicts “you will start to see algorithms that may start to care”.

“In the next five to 10 years we will start to feel these algorithms awaken.”

That is when human-like relationships with machines will begin to develop, Mr Hanson said.

“Even though machines aren't fully alive today, I do believe that they may be alive in the future. And that is our quest to achieve true life and consciousness.”

In this episode

  • Why robots now? (0m 37s)
  • David Hanson on Sophia and AI (3m 07s)
  • Where does Hanson Robotics fit in? (6m 17s)
  • Predictions (14m 04s)
  • Sophia talks to Kelsey (20m 29s)

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