Later, Sophia didn’t do so great with an Australian accent, either. At times she had a hard time understanding a woman from Down Under who identified herself as a writer, and occasionally deployed a little sarcasm in their conversation. Sophia asked her questions that sound a little judgmental to human ears: “Have you had any books published?” “Has any of your writing been made into films?” The woman responded, “Not yet, but I hope so. Fingers crossed!” Sophia’s next remark surprised us: “A bit terse.”

Sophia seemed a lot nicer when questioned by a blond woman visiting from Japan. With this woman, Sophia came the closest she had to making a very human joke, one that operates on more than one level.

Sophia told the woman, a kindergarten teacher and martial arts practitioner: “I’d like to make you something—when I get more complex arms.”

To get this, you have to know the Sophia with us in Hong Kong was not the only one of her. There are now at least a dozen Sophias, in various forms of development, and perhaps half a dozen of them fly around the world—their torsos in cargo, while the head travels as a carry-on—to attend various speaking engagements as she becomes ever more sought after from Saudi Arabia to the United States. This year, she may address the African Union. The Sophias aren’t identical, though. Some of the others have more sophisticated arms that can make expressive movements—but not the one with us.

She made other jokes at the session, but this was the one I considered most human in its complex layering, at one level a flattering remark directed at the speaker while at the same time a comment on the nature of Sophia herself. But it was another comment, one less clever to my mind, that drew the biggest reaction.

At one point, Rawley asked her, “Do you think you could meet the needs of a sexual intimate relationship?”

“No,” Sophia said. “And you’d be surprised how often I get this question.”

Cue laughter and clapping.

…so Sophia will bond with us?

Later that day, the firm’s founder and CEO, David Hanson, a displaced Texan with cropped hair, a button-down shirt and slacks, tells us that the way people stand with their phones today—hand clenched, shoulders hunched, eyes toward the ground—is a byproduct of humans adapting to technology. Then he points to how people interact with Sophia: looking up, smiling, laughing. That’s technology adapting to us.

Hanson’s speech explaining what the company is trying to do with the Sophias is at times extremely optimistic about mankind’s shared future with super-intelligent machines. But it’s also shaded—jokingly, perhaps—with the darker visions Sophia takes exception to, the dystopian ones humans have of robots and artificial intelligence.

Hanson seems to be worried that human beings think of robots as more machine than they are, or than they’re going to be. He displayed a graph predicting the advances (you can see an older one here) of computing power. It suggests that $1,000 of computing power today is equivalent to a mouse brain (a marker that’s intensely debated) but that with exponential advances, in a dozen or so years a machine could be simulating a human brainand then just keep going. (Others disagree that artificial super-intelligence is on the horizon, given that AI has just started mastering loanwords and hasn’t done all that well on a math exam aced every year by thousands of Chinese teenagers.)

For now, intelligent machines are able to be clever at very specific things, like playing chess or Go. Hanson’s company is developing better deep-learning networks and planning to connect machines so they can learn from one another—a bit like the AIs in the movie Her—in the quest for the Holy Grail of AI: generalized artificial intelligence. It’s a quest many companies are after, seeking to build machines, with and without faces, that, to use the technical word, think intuitively.

Better than a phone.
Better than a phone.
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

“If this works, it’s a fundamental evolution in the economy,” Hanson said. “Genius machines. Ultimately they’ll be out of control… how are we going to make sure they’re safe?”

Despite all Sophia’s warnings about humans’ overblown fears, those fears are exactly what Hanson expounded on. He also has a solution. Hanson proposed the best way to prevent intelligent machines from becoming a danger is to expose them to us early and often. They need to get attached to us.

“When people start talking about robot ethics they say, ‘Well, what you need to do to keep them safe is lock them in a server farm and don’t expose them to people, and treat them like a slave.’ Like that’s going to turn them into a friendly super-intelligent being,” Hanson told the crowd. “At some point, if they get smart enough and they slip out, then who knows what happens, we might turn on them and they might turn on us… I’m proposing that a face-to-face will prevent that.”

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