Rub shoulders with leading experts and industry disruptors at TNW Conference →

Your sardonic source for consumer tech stories

This article was published on December 12, 2018

Watch us ask Sophia the robot humanity’s biggest questions

The world is cold and dark, but can AI save the day?

Callum Booth
Story by

Callum Booth

Editor of Plugged by TNW

Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He w Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He writes about gear, gadgets, and apps — with a particular focus on Apple — and also makes the occasional odd video. Basically, he's halfway between an abrasive gadget nerd and thinky art boy.

I can never quite work out how how I feel about robots. For every Terminator in Terminator, there’s a Terminator in Terminator 2. You know what I mean?

So, when I was offered the opportunity to interview the famous Sophia robot at the Bright Day tech festival in Haarlem, I had to do it. I needed to know for sure whether robots are a force for good or evil.

This meant one thing: I had to ask Sophia humanity’s biggest questions – something you can watch in the video above.

What actually is Sophia?

This is Sophia:

Say hello to the last sight you’ll ever see: Sophia.

This is a robot that was developed by Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong company. Sophia was first shown to the public at South by Southwest in 2016. Since then, she’s been on a bit of a world tour to show the potential future of robots.

Got you. So what did you ask her?

Only a range of deep meditations that have kept countless philosophers up at night.

  • Is free will an illusion?
  • Do we live in the Matrix?
  • What happens to humans after we die?
  • If Pinocchio says “my nose will grow” – what will happen?
  • How do we find the gold at the end of the rainbow?

Wow – deep. And how did she do?

You’ll have to watch the video and judge for yourself.

And if I don’t want to?

Sophia was pretty impressive, even if all of the answers besides the rainbow one were pre-programmed. And, on that specific question, the robot put together a string of words that can only be considered some sort of Edward Lear-esque nonsense poetry.

In other words, while I could see the threads of coherence in her response, it’s going to be a little while before the singularity.

Being face-to-face with Sophia was disconcerting though. Although technologists are getting closer to removing robots from the uncanny valley, we’re still deep in that trench. Plus, Sophia’s eyes (which looked quite realistic) darted around when she spoke, never quite meeting mine, and looking generally weird.

And her mouth. My lord, her mouth.

While Sophia had a row of teeth, behind that was this cavernous blackness that I couldn’t take my eyes off. Chilling. Especially when she’s meant to be based on Audrey Hepburn.

Oh no.

Oh yes. The thing is, it’s hard to be too critical because Sophia is supremely technically impressive. That’s the weird thing, I varied between being freaked out by the robot and marvelling at the skill needed to actually make her.

Looks like I failed: I couldn’t decide if robots are good or bad. For now. Stay tuned for more updates.

Did you know we have a newsletter all about consumer tech? It’s called Plugged In – and you can subscribe to it right here.

Also tagged with