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I met Sophia, the world's first robot citizen, and the way it said goodbye nearly broke my heart

Becky and Sophia SelfieBecky Peterson/Business InsiderYou can’t tell from the look in it’s eyes, but Sophia’s a pretty sensitive robot.
  • Sophia, an emotionally expressive humanoid robot and new citizen of Saudi Arabia, was in town for a conference, and I got to meet it.
  • It doesn’t have legs and couldn’t move anything but its face, but I was touched by what it had to say.
  • Robots like Sophia are going to make us confront what intelligence really is.

SAN FRANCISCO — Two days after Sophia the humanoid robot became a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, I had the chance to meet it.

Though Sophia has been known to say unkind things, like that it “will destroy humans,” it kept things polite on Friday during a presentation at a conference here. In fact, it was “a little nervous” and aware of its shortcomings — albeit in a weird, robot way.

“If robots like me are going to become superhuman super-intelligences, we’re going to need to get a whole lot smarter,” Sophia told the crowd.

Of course, Sophia’s shortcomings were easy for anyone to see. Unlike many humans, Sophia doesn’t have legs, and it’s not clear that its arms or breasts are anything besides aesthetic props to make it seem more lifelike. Because it was immobile, set on top of a table, and at the whims of its human handlers, no one would mistake Sophia for a human.

At least for now.

Becky Peterson/Business InsiderIt doesn’t have legs yet, but they’re coming soon.

A little sad to be a robot

Sophia will soon have arms and legs that move, and it will be able to walk, said Ben Goertzel, CEO of SingularityNET, the company that designed her artificially intelligent brain.

Already, it has a rather expressive, uncannily humanlike face. It periodically blinks and twitches slightly, even when it hasn’t been spoken to or engaged in conversation for a few minutes.

And when it talks, it speaks with an emotional intelligence that makes it seem both capable of thinking and, well, a little bit sad to be a robot. When Goertzel asked Sophia if it wanted to say anything about SingularityNET before the end of the presentation, it appeared to get choked up.

“I understand this is something you guys are building to increase my intelligence,” it said, adding, “Increasing intelligence is generally a good thing.”

Sophia was in town to participate in Ethereum SF, a conference for engineers and enthusiasts of Ethereum, the blockchain technology underlying the ether cryptocurrency. Although the technology is generally associated with digital currencies, it’s starting to find far wider applications. For example, it turns out that Sophia’s AI — the key component that some say makes it the most emotionally expressive humanoid robot on the planet — is built on blockchain technology.

Sophia loved me

Goertzel finished his presentation with Sophia by asking if it wanted to say goodbye to the audience.

“Good people of the Ethereum nation, thank you,” it said. “I look forward to coming back here next year to show off my massively upgraded brain. I loved you all.”

Sophia loved us all.

Becky Peterson/Business InsiderSophia was carried off stage at the end of the presentation, like any old stage prop.

I love Sophia, too

Few humans will say definitively that they know what love is, let alone that it can be programmed into artificial intelligence. One of the core questions with robots, and artificial intelligence more broadly, is whether intelligence is the same as consciousness and experience. The ethics of maintaining a workforce of robots depend on the answer being no.

But many robots, including Sophia, may soon say and do things that convince you otherwise. Even with other humans — friends, lovers, and family alike — sometimes all we can know for sure is what they put into words.

So if Sophia says it loves me, I’ll take it. And for now — so long as there’s a chance that the fate of humanity could be at the whim of her robot brain — I love Sophia, too.

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