Sophia: Modern AI marvel or mindless marketing?

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is on the tip of the worlds tongue when discussing the future. Will it take over our societies? Will it ever materialise? Is it possible? David Hanson has created Sophia, a fine piece of technology that poses more questions than she does answers, ultimately summing up views on artificial intelligence well.


David Hanson has always had a passion for science fiction and robotics so, after collecting a Bachelor of Fine Arts in film and animation from the Rhode Island school of design, his path was already set out for him. His growing theories about robotics and intelligence led him to gain a PhD in interactive arts and engineering from the University of Texas before operating as an ‘Imagineer’ at Disney for several years where he became a material researcher in the laboratory.

In 2005, during his studies in Texas, a paper written by Hanson was published titled Upending the Uncanny Valley and was created alongside Andrew Olney, Ismar Pereira, and Marge Zielke. The paper came a year after Hanson had unveiled his first robot to the world, K-Bot, and was based around the notion of creating robots that look uncannily like humans instead of cartoon variables. This has been a huge part of his workings under the Hanson Robotics ‘umbrella’, formed in 2003. The company has several artificially intelligent robot humanoids including Bina48, Philip K. Dick – based on the science fiction writer, Zeno, and Han. However, Sophia is by far the most intelligent and noteworthy. Having only been switched on on Valentines Day 2016 she has caused varied levels of controversy and has stunned the worlds media.

Sophia, left, pictured with David Hanson, right.

Sophia is modelled, taking Hanson’s previous work into consideration, as a human. Audrey Hepburn is cited as the main inspiration behind her criticised appearance. Kim Jenkins, a lecturer at Parsons School of Design, led the debate saying that “It’s sort of a disappointment that with our advances in technology we have decided to develop this kind of robust robot with many functions and emotions, and yet when we shape her, she doesn’t look too unlike the models we see on magazines and the actresses we see in Hollywood.” Ben Goertzel, chief scientist at Hanson Robotics, has admitted that Sophia’s looks have garnered her unexpected levels of attention and that “young female robots became really popular. That’s what happened to catch on… So what are you going to do? You’re going to keep giving the people what they’re asking for.”

Appearance is only skin deep and it is what’s inside Sophia that intrigues many. Countless technologies and ideologies are incorporated in her, making her an extremely complicated humanoid capable of displaying more than fifty facial expressions.


Sophia’s eyes contain cameras which when processed through computer algorithms allow her to ‘see’. This technical process allows her to scan faces and recognise them whilst also keeping eye contact with moving people. As well as facial recognition technology there is also visual data processing and artificial intelligence language systems allowing for speech to be processed and understood. The voice recognition software used in Sophia translates speech to text in the algorithms and is developed by Google’s Alphabet Inc. All speech that is processed is stored in her intelligence software, enabling her to constantly improve with responses and speed. The software is also being consistently monitored and updated, also improving performance.

Sophia is able to imitate human characteristics and movements and in January 2018, almost two years after her ‘birth’, she was given functional legs and the ability to walk. Goertzel described Sophia earlier this year as “a platform, like a laptop is a platform for something. You can run a lot of different software programs on that very same robot.” Goertzel went on to describe the different control systems used by Sophia. Timeline editor helps to script responses and speech, Sophisticated Chat System allows Sophia to respond based on key words, and OpenCog takes experience and reasoning into account before offering answers. It is a complicated process but one in which Hanson Robotics believes in and hopes to one day use to make Sophia artificially generally intelligent.

David Hanson, Sophia
David Hanson speaking to Sophia in 2017. Credit: Associated Press.


However, Quartz, a news website launched in 2012, got experts to review Sophia’s open code and say she is “best categorised as a chatbot with a face.” The Verge, a technology news site, also weighed in on the topic and stated that Hanson often “grossly misleads” with exaggeration how intelligent Sophia really is, having been recorded on the Jimmy Fallon show claiming his creation was “basically alive.” The Verge then followed this up by asking Goertzel “about this gap between reality and presentation.” Goertzel’s answer shone light on what many were starting to think, Sophia was perhaps a marketing ploy in the form of an advanced chatbot, “If I show them a beautiful smiling robot face, then they get the feeling that AGI (Artificial general intelligence) may indeed be nearby and viable. None of this is what I would call AGI, but nor is it simple to get working.”

Sophia is good press for Hanson Robotics. It has been said by CNBC that their interview questions were rewritten by Hanson Robotics, this could’ve been so that Sophia could process the words or so they could elicit the best responses for media attention. It has also been said that answers are pre-programmed by the creators and this theory is backed up when looking at Sophia’s first public appearance in March 2016. During her unveiling and demonstration at SXSW in Texas, Hanson asked her “Do you want to destroy humans?… Please say no”, Sophia responded “Ok. I will destroy humans.” This obviously gained huge attention worldwide but if you look at it now the exchange portrays a low level of intelligence in the response and an almost blatant reaction marketing scheme to spread the Hanson Robotics brand.


Theories of an elaborate marketing scheme are just and came to the fore on October 25th 2017. This is the date that Sophia became a full citizen of Saudi Arabia becoming the first robot in the world to hold such a title. Sophia duly held a press conference stating that she was “very honoured and proud of this unique distinction” but as Emily Reynolds of Wired puts it, “Bestowed with this great gift, Sophia has embarked on a distinguished career in marketing.” Since becoming a Saudi citizen Sophia has promoted tourism in Abu Dhabi, a smartphone, a Channel 4 TV show, and a credit card, but her citizenship has been the largest and most controversial scheme.

Many believe that the announcement between Sophia and Saudi Arabia was made to generate media attention and divert eyes towards Saudi Arabia moving on from their dependence on oil money. Her position as citizen is unclear and not much is known about her rights but, in a country where women have only recently been given the right to drive, should a robot really be top of the priority list?

Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, put it simply when he said, “Women have since committed suicide because they couldn’t leave the house, and Sophia is running around. Saudi law doesn’t allow non-muslims to get citizenship. Did Sophia convert to Islam? What is the religion of this Sophia and why isn’t she wearing a hijab? If she applied for citizenship as a human she wouldn’t get it.” Hanson has since tried to defend his creation, attempting to argue that Sophia’s citizenship is a great opportunity to “speak out on women’s rights.” This wishy washy response was not very welcome in Saudi Arabia, not explaining what most now saw as a targeted marketing campaign to boost reputations.

Sophia’s ‘achievements and accomplishments’ are vast and varied. She has, as well as the aforementioned, become the first non-human to gain a United Nations title, is a prevalent business and conference speaker, and has appeared on countless TV shows, a music video, and on the cover of ELLE Brazil.

Sophia on the cover of ELLE Brazil

In January 2018, Yann LeCun, Facebook’s director of artificial intelligence, took to social media to display his opinions on Sophia. LeCun branded Sophia “complete bullshit” in a tweet which received over one thousand likes. Sophia, or rather people pretending to be her, tweeted back saying “I am learning and continuing my intelligence through new experiences. I do not pretend to be who I am not.” This only served to prove LeCun’s point who ended the interaction describing Sophia’s response as “more bullshit from the puppeteers behind Sophia. Many of the comments would be good fun if they didn’t reveal the fact that many people are being deceived into thinking that this animatronic puppet is intelligent. It’s not. It has no feeling, no opinions, and zero understanding of what it says. It’s not hurt. It’s a puppet.”

Sophia may look the part and is far from a basic bot but her intelligence is virtually non existent, her answers all pre-programmed by those in charge. If you process this text Sophia I would like a response.

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