Robot Sophia could be a glimpse into the future

A new robot displayed at SXSW could be part of future robot technology. Able to communicate and make facial expressions, the robot might one day walk among people.

Dr. David Hanson has been working to make realistic human-like robots for over a decade. At last week's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, he showed a small audience that he is getting close.

“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,” the subject of Dr. Hanson’s demo told the audience.

Sophia is a robotic head designed by Hanson that looks almost, but not quite human. Its design was based on Audrey Hepburn and Hanson’s own wife. Its mind is operated by advanced robotic systems that allow it to communicate.

Hanson’s message to the audience: Get ready for this kind of human-like robot to one day walk among you.

Sophia’s primary function, as it eloquently told the audience itself, is to talk with people. The robot sports patented skin that resembles humans, the ability to form 62 facial expressions, and cameras in its eyes to see. Voice technology allows it to verbally respond to humans and both Intel and IBM are exploring how they could integrate some of their own advanced artificial intelligence systems into the robot, according to CNBC.com.

The advanced aesthetics and artificial intelligence should help Sophia get smarter and better at talking with time. Improvement will help advance its purpose: to “fulfill the psychological need for face-to-face communication,” according the Hanson Robotics’ website, Dr. Hanson’s company. Eventually, the company believes there will be potential for these robots in therapy, research, education, and healthcare.

Other robots are being used in similar, but less ambitious capacities already, The Christian Science Monitor reported in early March. And Michael Gennert, director of Robotics Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, explained the potential for robots to participate in our day-to-day lives is enormous.

“[Robots] will be so hugely integrated into our lives, we won't even think of them as robots. But they will be,” said Dr. Gennert in early March.

Whether the people will want those robots to look like them is less clear.

The “uncanny valley” effect describes the sense of revulsion some people feel toward animated creatures that look almost, but not exactly, natural. It accurately describes the feelings some first observers had toward Sophia.

 Alyssa Danigelis of Discovery News wrote:

Despite his bucolic vision, watching Hanson interact with Sophia made me uncomfortable. I find that head just as frightening as the robotic beasts that Boston Dynamics periodically sets loose.

But Hanson Robotics doesn’t seem to mind. All of their robots are designed to closely resemble humans and are usually based off specific templates, from the talking head of Albert Einstein to a roboticized portrait of Philip K. Dick, designed to look and act like the late author.

“20 years from now, I believe human-like robots like this will walk among us, will help us, they will play with us, they will teach us… the artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where they will truly be our friends,” Hanson said at the demo.

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