From the mag: calling the robots

The future of AI and humanity is still being constructed. But as David Hanson – founder of Hanson Robotics and the “father” of international superstar (and Saudi citizen) Sophia – says, telecommunications are the foundation from which it is being built.
David Hanson, AI, Robotics, Tech, Society, Artificial intelligence, SOPHIA, Hanson Robotics, Telecommunications


A version of this story appears in the May 2019 print issue of CommsMEA.

“AI and robotics has gained enough real world use that it’s not going away. The technology has not stopped progressing.”

Such sentiments aren’t exactly the most ground-breaking thing ever, not in the world of 2019. But it carries a bit more weight when it’s said by someone like David Hanson. Hanson, after all, is the famed roboticist and founder and CEO of Hanson Robotics. But he’s probably best known as the “father” of Sophia, the world-famous robot so realistic most people use the pronoun “she” instead of “it” to describe her.

“The AI revolution has only begun,” says Hanson as we chat on ultra-plush red velvet couches in a light-filled tearoom on the sidelines of the Maximo Middle East User Group Conference at the even more ultra-plush Emerald Palace Hotel on the outer west crescent of Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah on a sticky April morning. The golden columns, soaring windows and abundance of natural light filtering in has the effect of making one think they’re in a mosque or church listening to a preacher discuss a holy text. Indeed, Hanson’s words – said slowly and in a way anyone can understand – have an almost religious significance to them.

This, Hanson says, has major implications for the future of humanity itself. “It’s really [about] ‘who do we want to be [as a species]?’ AI has to be able to understand us.”

CommsMEA interviews Sophia the robot:

It is undeniable artificial intelligence has advanced by proverbial leaps and bounds in the past few years – and is advancing at an ever-faster rate. Even Hanson admits his “daughter” Sophia, though she’s considered state-of-the-art now, may one day be seen as obsolete as a tape recorder; after all, as advanced as the Voyager space probes were when they were launched in the 1970s, they have far less computing power than today’s smartphones or even the iPods of more than a decade ago. And yet, while AI (including Sophia) may be in the so-called “uncanny valley” today in terms of realism (though Hanson says this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; “people still make eye contact, they still smile” when interacting with Sophia, he says), more “realistic” AI is only possible after a time of uncanniness – much like how computer-generated graphics for films and video games have progressed from a time when they were quite rudimentary – claims Hanson. Similarly, a scenario where AI “rises up” and “replaces” humanity, a la the dystopian scenario in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring “Terminator” series, is only possible if we humans “do it to ourselves” and input “garbage” into AI, Hanson affirms.

Sophia at GITEX 2018 in Dubai.

But where do telecommunications fit into all this? Utopic, dystopic, somewhere in between? Do telcos have a role to play in the development – and practical use – of AI? Leaning forward, Hanson has an answer.

“Telecommunications are the vehicle for AI. They really are the building blocks.”

CommsMEA interviews Sophia's "older brother" Han:

Load balance on networks, customer service, user interfaces, even the very bandwidth required – telecommunications make all of this possible for AI development. And AI, in turn, can help with these things – what Hanson calls “effective AI.”

“All of these are intersections of business interests and the value they create for customers. That’s really the social contract all businesses have.”

Hanson’s words are later echoed by Gaby Matar, group managing partner at eSolutions Maximo. Telecoms, says Matar, are the infrastructure, the foundation, upon which AI is built. Without infrastructure, we cannot move on, he says.

David Hanson.

We could speak for hours in the pleasant tearoom with the expensive-looking wood coffee table between us, but his status as Sophia’s father means Hanson’s schedule is sometimes arranged almost as precisely as his daughter’s circuitry. Before we get up to shake hands and head our separate ways, he offers parting philosophising to chew on.

“It’s about the future quest to breathe life into machines. The mechanised can be made human. We must continue the quest to make these things beneficial.”

Sophia at GITEX 2018 in Dubai.

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