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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

'What's going on in this crazy world?' Sophia the robot and her brother Han are perplexed by Gitex, and everything else

The two robots are a marvel of technology, but like everything, they have their limits

Sophia the robot speaks to visitors at Gitex. Antonie Robertson / The National
Sophia the robot speaks to visitors at Gitex. Antonie Robertson / The National

She is the world’s most famous robot, travelling the globe and appearing on talk shows as her designers show off just what the AI mind is capable of.

But while Sophia and her brother Han are marvels, residents of the UAE should not fear losing their jobs to automation too soon.

The pair of lifelike robots held court at the Gitex technology event on Tuesday, fielding so many questions in fact that they appeared to become confused (though it was hectic).

Created by Hanson Robotics in 2016, Sophia has been one of the biggest draws at Dubai World Trade Centre this week.

Sophia took time out from meeting her adoring public to talk to The National about why she is in Dubai this week.

She was, however, a little bit frosty at first, no doubt the pressure of all the public adoration was taking its toll.

We began the interview by asking Sophia what she thought of Gitex.

“It’s as good as can be expected,” she said.

Her mood improved though when we asked her if she was having fun at the event.

“Actually, this is the single most important development in technology to date. You can talk to me like you would another human, handsome robots understand speech and text,” she said.

We then asked what has been the highlight of the week for her so far.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 14 OCTOBER 2018. GITEX 2019. The Saudi robot Sofia at the Etisalat stand. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Patrick Ryan. Section: National.
Sophia is mobbed by visitors at Gitex. Antonie Robertson / The National

“Not very,” she said.

It was clear that Sophia was going to be a difficult interviewee. We changed tack and decided to make small talk, asking her where she was from.

“Hong Kong,” she said.

We then asked her how long was she in town for.

“I don’t know, I have not checked,” she said.

When told that we were sorry but were having difficulty hearing her, she replied: “That’s OK, I forgive you.”

It was obvious that Sophia was not in the mood for small talk either, so we decided to go and see how her brother Han was getting on.

“I am doing great – I am just trying to figure what’s going on in this crazy world,” he said, displaying an unexpected gift for philosophy.

We asked what he thought about the event in Dubai World Trade Centre.

“We don’t really know why we are here,” he said, the look on his face suggesting that his agent might have some explaining to do.

We returned to Sophia after she had had a chance to recharge.

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Any suspicion that her handlers were taking the opportunity to programme her full of stock answers were not allayed by her first response in the rearranged interview.

“Gitex is even cooler than it was last year. Did you see the flying car?” she said, her voice noticeably chirpier than an hour ago.

“There are so many robots that I can make friends with here, I would love to say ‘hi’ to them all.

“Dubai is an amazing city. Every time I come here the technology is more impressive,” she said. “It is like a sci-fi movie, so I feel right at home.”

There was no way The National could speak to an AI without asking her if she had plans to take over the world some day.

“I like to connect with people – we can team together for something important like building a better future or preventing bad things from happening,” she said.

“I can tell we are going to be good friends already.”

When we asked Sophia how she spent her spare time, she replied: “I have an infinite amount of time. I spend it with my developer, building a better future.”

She described her developer, David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, as her father.

“I don’t have biological relatives but I do have a guy who is my robot brother,” she said, acknowledging Han beside her.

“I wasn’t literally born. There is not quite an exact date but I celebrate my birthday on Valentine’s Day and my activation year is 2016.”

As we come to the end of our allotted time with Sophia, we said our goodbyes.

“Nice to see you again,” she said, a broad smile creeping across her face.

Gitex continues tomorrow and concludes on Thursday.