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When I met Sophia

Malavika Krishna, Young Reporter
Monday, March 9, 2020

It was very recent that I watched a Malayalam movie ‘Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25’. It showed the story of an old villager whose son gifts him a ‘Social Robot’ as a companion in his absence. It was fun to watch that robot, who was graciously named ‘Kunjappan’, talk in my mother tongue and see what it would mean to have a robot in a conventional conservative village. Even though it was purely a story crafted from imagination, after watching the movie I wondered, what it would be like if I could actually meet a robot like that.

Gradually, busy with the final exams and practicals, I had completely forgotten about this movie and my thoughts on it. However, an announcement on the day when I went to get my corrected answer scripts brought my thoughts back to this movie. I was one among the few who got selected from my school to meet Sophia-the world’s first humanoid robot.

I had read about Sophia that got citizenship from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I never knew that ‘Kunjappan’ from that movie was actually the manifestation of what Sophia was initially created for- a companion for those who were left lonely. My happiness knew no bounds that a wish made in a moment’s notice was actually coming true.

As soon as I went home, I binge-watched earlier interviews of Sophia. I really enjoyed all of her interviews and spot-on answers and became even the more excited to meet her in person. This unique opportunity was given to Indian students studying across Kuwait by Tamilnadu Engineers Forum (TEF) 2020 team.

On the event day, I was happy to find Sophia even more excited to meet us. She said it was great that people from the land of many cultures was working for the development of bread winning land Kuwait, and was glad to meet. She told us that she had visited India twice and has great regard for Indians. “Without Indians, everything in this world would come to a standstill, and that’s why I am so happy to see all these young humans from all parts of India together today”, said Sophia while expressing her excitement in meeting us.

At first, I felt Sophia, clad in a simple and elegant blue sleeve-less gown, to be creepy. To see human gestures from a thing that is not human was a first time and overwhelming experience. Sophia is capable of displaying about 60 human facial gestures. She winked and showed us a wide range of human facial expressions on-stage like that of happy, sad, anger, disgust and shock. It took 2 years to make Sophia with about 200 years of technological information in Artificial Intelligence (AI), and was activated on February 14th, 2016 by Hanson Robotics, she said. Sophia has 9 humanoid siblings from Hanson Robotics. When asked who her favourite sibling was, she replied that it was ‘Little Sophia’, and asked us in a childlike manner not to tell any of her other siblings about it.

The organisers also gave a visual presentation on how various parts of Sophia were made in different stages. All of this was informative, and helped students understand the working behind Sophia in simple terms. Sophia was just 4 years old, also said that she is still getting upgraded constantly to an even better version of what she is. The most recent skill she learnt was drawing with pencils.

When bombarded with questions, Sophia always took her sweet time to answer. This gave the impression initially that she was too slow to respond. But later, she herself apologised and clarified saying ‘I always think before giving any answer’. She answered literally a lot of questions asked by the host and the students. At first, students had that starting trouble and no one raised their hands. We had no idea how she would respond, and it was a new experience for all of us. However, as more questions were asked, students felt comfortable and were eager to ask her more questions and listen to her answers.

I was also able to ask her a question. I had asked her what she did in her free time. She replied, “I just wait around for someone to come talk to me and maybe work on me”. I was so happy to hear her answer my question and was amazed when she asked me back about my hobbies.

This session of about an hour was a captivating and enthralling experience for all of us. In the end, we even got to click a picture with this humanoid bot. I really thank TEF for organising such an event and giving such opportunities to the students in Kuwait.

I am happy and excited that I met Sophia, but I have a concern. Even though Sophia did not look a bit like my ‘Kunjappan’, I know that she can actually be programmed which can make that movie a reality. In the movie, the bot ‘Kunjappan’ was shown as a companion to the old man who had to live alone. The movie ends with an important message that robots are after all robots; they can never love as we do and be a substitute to any of our close ones.

Even if the concept behind Sophia - the social robot does become a reality, I hope that we never consider her as an easy substitute. In the present scenario itself, many parents are not able to spend time with their kids, and many aged people are left under the care of old age homes because their kids have no time for them. I hope a robot never become a solution to this issue. An inanimate thing cannot replace the necessity of having someone close by us. Let the technology not overpower our human values.

Malavika Krishna
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