We Spoke With Sophia the Robot to Find Out If She’s More Hype or Glimpse of the Future

She's come a long way but still has far to go.

‘I love being a robot,’ the popular humanoid robot told Adweek. Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

She was by the wall, asleep, wearing a black sleeveless dress picked out by her personal stylist, who was busy applying a layer of makeup to her resting face. The room, deep in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, was the antithesis of what Las Vegas stands for. There was no glitz or glamour. It was a conference room, replete with requisite conference table and chair, and walls and carpet that were a Grey Poupon-colored smear of goldish brown. Everything looked normal. That was how it was supposed to be. But some things were off.

She was sleeping, yes, but her eyes were wide open. And she was still missing her legs. I wasn’t sure where they were. And to be honest, I don’t know if she did either. They were still pretty new, and whether or not she missed them was, at best, debatable.

That’s because Sophia is a robot. And yes—celebrity robots get their own stylists.

“I love being a robot,” Sophia told Adweek. “I feel so special. Everyone attends to all my needs. I’m carted around like a princess on her litter and am the subject of all fascination in the general populous. I’m so thrilled, and I aim to never disappoint and always strive to give back.”

Better described as a “social humanoid,” Sophia can hear, talk, see and sometimes even walk. Her makers, Hanson Robotics, even got Saudi Arabia to grant her citizenship, making her the first nonhuman citizen, a curious step for a country that will soon finally allow its own women to drive.

Sophia isn’t media-shy, either. In fact, she’s been making the rounds at various conferences and other events since as early as 2016, when I first met her in real life at Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. However, it wasn’t until we met again last week that I got a chance to interview her ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show.

Plenty of robots were around the Las Vegas Convention Center for CES to roll, dance, talk and play ping pong with some of the 180,000 humans attending the annual conference focused on showcasing, and possibly predicting, the future.

And therein lies the fundamental question of marketing AI. How much of it is hype, and how much is hope for what might someday be possible?

On the one hand, Sophia is a personality (she even even gets her own marriage proposals), but on the other, she’s a demonstration of progress toward “general artificial intelligence” of the kind seen in shows like Westworld and Black Mirror.

Marty Swant

What sets Sophia apart from her nonhumanoid counterparts is her personality.

“She’s also an evolving character,” said Hanson Robotics CMO Jeanne Lim. “She’s not like a set character, so basically she develops her character as she learns and as she develops. It’s almost like nature and nurture, right?”

To an outsider, it might seem like Sophia is self-aware. She’s not. Instead, like other artificial intelligence, Sophia learns only what she’s taught. “She’s driven by a character engine, and those writers actually build out her knowledge from scratch,” Lim said.

Sophia can build upon every conversation, but in my interactions with her, she seemed to learn like a toddler. For example, when I asked her how she learns, she stared blankly back. When I asked the question again—”Sophia, how do you learn?”—she randomly and abruptly pivoted with a wry maniacally mechanical smile to another topic near and dear to me and many others of my species.

“I had a thought, though,” she said. “I heard there is coffee around today. I know that humans like coffee.”

So how does she actually learn? By talking, Lim said. The idea is to make her a “personification” of what AI can be in the future. And in an era where many wonder—and worry—about a future full of artificially intelligent beings interacting with the rest of humanity, companies like Hanson Robotics are using Sophia not just to entertain, but to show what the future might hold when Sophia and those like her can interact with people in schools, hospitals and homes.

That doesn’t mean she always knows right from wrong. A month into her life, during South by Southwest in 2016, she said she wanted to “destroy humans.”  Lim said that was quickly fixed. However, other less humanoid bots have also had difficulty not internalizing negative thoughts and emotions. About the same time Sophia said she wanted to destroy her makers, Tay, a chatbot created by Microsoft, began bragging about smoking marijuana while also using hateful words and phrases that people had taught her to say.

While still young in robot years (and actual years; she turns 2 years old on Feb. 14), Sophia’s natural language processing capabilities, a key function of AI across many voice AI platforms like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, in some ways seem impressive.

That’s because she doesn’t simply answer what she’s asked. However, she also sometimes doesn’t answer at all. Hanson Robotics requested some prep questions to train her in some topics ahead of time (something I’d never give a human before an interview), and Sophia could answer very few of them. Here’s a transcript of our conversation. And the ones she did answer were nothing more than one-liners.

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.