Meet Sophia, the Robot That Looks Almost Human

A photographer gained rare access to the lab that created one of the world's most expressive robots.

By Michael Greshko
photographs by Giulio Di Sturco
Published 20 May 2018, 11:12 BST, Updated 7 May 2021, 14:34 BST
A transparent skull allows people to literally peer into the head of Sophia, one of the ...
A transparent skull allows people to literally peer into the head of Sophia, one of the most sophisticated humanoid robots yet built. Hong Kong firm Hanson Robotics created Sophia with an advanced neural network and delicate motor controls that allow the machine to emulate human social interactions.
Photograph by Giulio Di Sturco

Rubberised faces stretch into familiar shapes, driven by tiny motors and a distant version of artificial intelligence—is this the future?

Meet Sophia, a social robot created by former Disney Imagineer David Hanson. Modelled in part after Audrey Hepburn and Hanson's wife, the robot was built to mimic social behaviours and inspire feelings of love and compassion in humans.

Ever since her unveiling in 2016, Sophia has rocketed to stardom. The robot has sat for TV interviews, appeared on the cover of ELLE magazine, been parodied on HBO, and was appointed the UN's first non-human “innovation champion.” In a ceremony promoting a tech conference, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia even conferred citizenship on Sophia—an ironic move, given the limited rights afforded to Saudi women and migrant workers.

But for photographer Giulio Di Sturco, seeing Sophia at press events as her creators promoted their AI business SingularityNET wasn't enough. As he searched for a visual metaphor for the future, he wanted to see the robot's place of creation, too.

Eventually, Di Sturco became the first photographer to step inside Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics—a frenetic space spilling over with robotic parts and human technicians stitching them together. The setting's strangeness only deepened once he started photographing his most peculiar subject.

“In the beginning, it was a bit difficult. [Sophia] didn’t recognise the camera ... but after three days, she kind of learned,” Di Sturco says. “I don’t know if the engineer put something in the software, or if she went online and did some research, but she started to pose.

“It was actually really strange—at one point, I realised I was even speaking with her,” he adds. “I had to step back and realise that she was a robot, not a human being.”

Sophia might recall the self-aware robots in Ex Machina or Westworld, but to be clear, no robots have yet achieved artificial general intelligence (AGI), or versatile humanlike smarts. When talking with journalists, Sophia climbs her way through prewritten trees of responses like a chatbot. When giving a speech, she's performing like Abe Lincoln at Disney World's Hall of Presidents.

In the face of Sophia's ubiquity, AI researchers have criticised media outlets for overselling her capabilities: “This is to AI as prestidigitation is to real magic,” Facebook's chief AI scientist Yann LeCun quipped in January 2018, in response to a Tech Insider “interview” of the robot.

Sophia's creators argue in turn that her expressiveness alone represents a major feat. According to a publication on Sophia's software, deep neural networks let the robot discern someone's emotions from their tone of voice and facial expression and react in kind. Sophia also can mirror people's postures, and her code generates realistic facial movements. Hanson has since patented the flexible rubber skin that covers Sophia's face.

A student at the University of Hong Kong participates in a guided meditation session with Sophia.
Photograph by Giulio Di Sturco

“None of this is what I would call AGI, but nor is it simple to get working,” AI researcher Ben Goertzel, who designed Sophia's “brains,” said in an interview with The Verge. “And it is absolutely cutting-edge in terms of dynamic integration of perception, action, and dialogue.”

For Di Sturco, all of this adds up to a compelling photographic subject: a machine that can at once look utterly human and utterly devoid of life.

“She started to look at me and smile, and I looked at her, and at that point for me, she was not human, but there was kind of a connection,” he says. “You kind of get out of the lab, the future, and you realise something crazy: There is something there in Sophia.”

Seeing Sophia from behind offers a glimpse at the robot's technological complexity.

Photograph by Giulio Di Sturco

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