Hong Kong — The conference crowd in Hong Kong is restless. Sophia, an eerily humanoid robot, is supposed to be talking to us, blowing our minds with the robotic prowess of hometown Hong Kong development company Hanson.


SwissCognitiveInstead, the robot needs a reboot.
For those at the Hong Kong AI Summit with nagging concerns about the notion of global robot dominance, it’s a welcome demonstration that, perhaps, we will not have to bow to electronic overlords any time soon.

Jeanne Lim is on stage with Sophia as the robot takes to blinking and smiling at the audience, rather than talking. Lim sighs, but her poise is unbreakable, even if this is not what she was hoping for.

Lim, chief marketing officer with Hanson Robotics , describes Sophia as a kind of robot pal, or maybe a toddler (who is currently throwing a tech tantrum of sorts, still not talking as planned).

“She’s like a little baby,” Lim says as audience members queue to take selfies with the robot.

“That’s why I say I babysit her.” To Lim, Sophia personifies artificial intelligence; when we think AI we often picture data sets and programs, and it all seems very removed and conceptual, she muses.

“But we feel that if AI (technologies are) going to be part of our lives, we have to humanize them. We have to be comfortable with them so it’s not this foreign thing that we put in the server room, but we’re used to them, we’re familiar with them, therefore we can influence them to take on our values,” she says.

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Hanson is on the cusp of commercializing its technologies and producing robots for service industries, but that’s just one sliver of the artificial intelligence sector. When it comes to AI, Sophia’s cousins are already out in the world. They’re the apps on your phone, Siri and voice recognition, your smart fridge, surgery assistance technologies, self-driving cars and instant chats online with your bank.

Three weeks after Sophia’s tech tantrum, a mechanical barista slings coffee at the World Robot Conference in Beijing. It’s no Sophia — the body is rudimentary, there’s no wink, no smile, and certainly no banter about how your day has been — but by all accounts, it brews a fine latte. 

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