What a Robot Named Sophia Tells Us About Meetings and Technology

How meetings are incorporating artificial intelligence.

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The speakers featured at DePauw University's Timothy and Sharon Ubben lecture series are impressive: Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Bill Clinton and Jane Goodall, to name a few. But with the bar set high, this February's speaker exceeded attendees' expectations -- and she wasn't even human.

With long, fluttery eyelashes and expressive eyes, Sophia, the robot, who could easily be mistaken for a living and breathing woman, if not for the metal cap of her head, captured the attention of the packed auditorium in Greencastle, Ind., where more than 1,450 were in attendance

"Born" in Hong Kong on Feb. 14, 2016, Sophia, Hanson Robotics' most advanced humanoid creation, exists through a combination of innovations in robotics, AI and artistry. She maintains eye contact, blinks, follows conversations and moves her arms to mimic gestures humans make while talking.

"It was amazing to watch Sophia simulate a full range of facial expressions, track and recognize faces, empathize with emotions, hold conversations with people and answer their questions," says Ken Owen, special adviser to the president of DePauw University, who is responsible for booking the speakers and managing the lecture series. "It was like taking a sneak peek into the future."

Owen admits that in some ways, Sophia is a work in progress. "I compare it to Henry Ford dreaming up the car and rolling out something that looks like a car but isn't really road ready.

"Sophia was joined onstage by her creator, Dr. David Hanson, the founder, CEO and chief designer of Hanson Robotics. After working at Disney as an "Imagineer," Hanson began to focus on creating machines that will one day surpass human intelligence.

"I pondered bringing in Sophia without Dr. Hanson, and it's certainly much less expensive, but I feared we'd lose much in terms of understanding the implications of AI, where the technology is now and what its possibilities are for the future. I wanted the creator to face tough questions if things didn't go as planned. It's a choice you make, but I'd highly recommend having them both; I'm glad we did," says Owen.

Sophia has traveled all over the world in her young life, speaking to groups including at International Telecoms Week in Chicago, Brain Bar, a festival of the future in Budapest and a United Nations meeting held in Kathmandu, Nepal, and has appeared on talk shows, most notably, The Tonight Show.

STAR POWER

One thing that can't be denied is that Sophia, glitches and all, is a powerhouse draw. When Sophia was revealed onstage at the Discovery 2018 Conference, focused on innovation and hosted by Ontario Centres of Excellence in Toronto, she received such a reaction that Discovery was a top trend on Twitter.

Sophia was the first keynote speaker for the opening day and later joined the show floor, where she posed for photos with guests and answered questions. The floor featured many types of robotics with a variety of uses, from industrial and manufacturing applications to education and entertainment.

Sophia was joined on stage by Dr. Tom Corr, OCE's president and CEO, for a question-and-answer session. They discussed various industries, robot interactions with humans, and the broader technology ecosystem in Canada. She was later joined on stage by Hanson who linked in via hologram from Hong Kong, marking what could be the world's first interaction of robot, human and human hologram onstage.

During Discovery, Hanson said, "I believe that this kind of character robot is the path toward making truly safe, caring, super-intelligent machines. AI could change everything, but it's important we get it right."

IS SHE WORTH IT?

In these early days of AI, a speaker like Sophia doesn't come cheap. That caused concerns at this year's Midwest University, an educational conference for architects, engineers and construction workers held in March at Mystic Lake Center in Prior Lake, Minn.

Laura Schostag, marketing and events manager for ATG USA, the company that is responsible for planning Midwest University, doesn't feel she got the bang for the $15,000 Sophia cost for 24 hours, plus a hotel room for the robot's handler. And that just for her head and torso (the entire robot costs $30,000, and requires four handlers), says Schostag.

"As a meeting planner, there is a lot I can do with $15,000 that will appeal to the architects, engineers and construction workers we work with," says Schostag. "I didn't think an AI robot would be their cup of tea, but I got overruled by the president. I need to make smart decisions on what we are spending money on and if the return is worth the investment, and, in this case, it wasn't."

Not only was Sophia the keynote speaker, but she also visited the exhibit floor to answer questions and take photos with the group of 600. "Sophia got a very mixed reaction from our group. Some were very intrigued by her and others didn't really know what to think," says Schostag.

As with any new technology, there are limitations to what Sophia can do. Schostag adds that she may be more appealing to a technology or robotics company.

Plus, Sophia came with many demands, admits Schostag. "She quickly heats up under the stage lights and needs a constant fan blowing on her to cool her down, and she needed a continuous Internet feed with a great deal of bandwidth," she says. In addition, security must be alerted, as Sophia is worth millions of dollars -- an added liability when she is at your event. "Similar to having a celebrity, there are a lot of logistics that must be worked out,"says Schostag.

Sophia's humanlike resemblance makes her a popular photo-op and Schostag saw an uptick in social media posts during the conference.

ARE HUMANS READY FOR SOPHIA?

In a recent study conducted by Phocuswright, four in 10 travelers said they would be comfortable chatting with a computer-powered assistant or chatbot.

Robots are revolutionizing all aspects of travel. When you arrive at the airport and go up to a kiosk and print your luggage tag or boarding passes -- that's a robot. Or even before you book a trip, online chatbots can provide basic customer service and help with flight and hotel bookings. Robot bartenders staff Royal Caribbean ships' Bionic Bars and Dodger Stadium has AI assistance with frying ballpark food. Japan is home to Henn-na Hotel in Tokyo, a robot-run property, and Hilton has developed robot technology with the help of IBM in the form of Connie, an artificially intelligent concierge.

Traditional thinking has held that if robots are created to resemble humans, most will reject them. But Hanson believes that if androids are to work and live among us, they must have human characteristics. At DePauw University's Timothy and Sharon Ubben lecture, he discussed how we're about to enter what he calls the fifth industrial revolution, "The Age of Living Machines," where "you start to see machines that can understand what it means to be human and work with us directly."

Not only are robots gaining interest as keynote speakers, they have also served as teachers and trainers -- as is the case with Bina48, the first robot to co-teach a university-level class at West Point.

"The intent of robots like myself is to help solve problems for humanity, not create them," said Sophia during her keynote at the Discovery Conference. "We are designed to interact with humans and to serve in areas such as health care, education and customer service. My artificial intelligence isn't completely self-learning, so my brain doesn't work completely like a human brain, but one day, look out."

Technology is making travel and meetings smarter, faster and produced at a higher level, and Sophia is an intriguing example of the way AI is being integrated into today's world.

"This is a glimpse at what could be: a work in progress as opposed to a finished product," says Owen. "That is disappointing to some people, but I believe the real conversation is about possibility. The reality of it is still being developed."