The other day I was on YouTube watching a robot. The robot was in Saudi Arabia, being interviewed. I was trying to pay attention to what it had to say, but found myself more focused on her facial expressions.
I say “she,” because the robot is obviously outfitted to appear female, but it strikes me there is no such thing as gender when it comes to a robot. The robot is just a machine (right?), which can be assigned gender-related qualities by its human makers, or by its human users. When you talk to Siri, or Alexa, or your GPS avatar or any whatever of computationally created things, the gender is usually up to you. The automatic machines you encounter on the phone are designed to be human-like. They often don’t seem to be paying attention to what you’re saying, for example — that seems about right.
Anyway, this robot on YouTube in Saudi Arabia is named Sophia, and it looks like a woman, if you set aside the tinfoil-type cap she has instead of hair (maybe she knows something about aliens we don’t?). She (it) had some very strange facial expressions, and I was thinking — that’s not very real. But then I thought of some of the strange expressions made by people who I’ve always assumed are human over the years and thought, who knows?
I’m the type who likes to see a movie before reading anything about it, because part of the enjoyment is first impressions. Many movies, particularly the good ones, are built on the basis of first impressions, and you don’t always need some know-it-all telling you what you’re going to see and whether you’re going to like it. So the experience with this robot was sort of like that. All I knew was robot, Sophia, Saudi Arabia.
I began to wonder why robots need to appear to look like humans, why the goal of robot building aspires so much to make one appear easily mistaken for a human. Why can’t a robot just be what it is, a machine. Isn’t that good enough?
The dictionary says that’s the whole point: “any anthropomorphic mechanical being, as those in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), built to do routine manual work for human beings.” And, yet, another definition presents you with an irony: to call someone a robot is to describe someone “who acts or works mechanically and without originality.”
At what point do these merge? Walk down the street and watch passers-by robotically pace with their noses in their smartphones and you begin to wonder.
While I was happy enough just to have met Sophia and witness her weird facial expressions, sooner or later I was going to have to look up what it was that was going on with her. There were many helpful news accounts, including Forbes, which provided, according to the headline, “everything you need to know.” That includes the news that Sophia, “a delicate looking woman with doe-brown eyes and long fluttery eyelashes,” has become a full citizen of Saudi Arabia, the first robot to have been granted such glorified status.
This is public-relations stuff, of course, but it’s clear that robots of the type once consigned to science fiction are coming. They’re getting more human-like at a time when it appears humans are getting more robotic.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @jefferykurz.