Sophia’s visit and Bangladesh’s robotic implications

Wafiur Rahman
Thursday, December 14th, 2017

Sophia answering Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s queries at the Digital World 2017


The recent visit to Bangladesh by the world’s first artificially intelligent robot from Hanson Robotics, Sophia, left everyone in awe, and often in splits, thanks to her artificial intelligence (AI), which was responsible for her quirky computational humour.


Everyone applauded when she answered most of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s queries at the recently-concluded Digital World 2017, asking how Sophia knew about Hasina.  In reply Sophia said that she had read much information about the Prime Minister and Bangladesh. “I know you are the daughter of the great leader father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. You are also known as the Mother of Humanity in the world and you are implementing the Digital Bangladesh,” she said. Sophia also said that she knows it very well that the name of the Prime Minister’s granddaughter is Sophia too. “Yes, the name of Joy’s (Prime Minister’s son and the ICT Advisor) daughter is Sophia,” the smiling Prime Minister informed the audience who were clapping loudly.


The audience caught a glimpse of her sharp and unintentional wit, thanks to her AI-programmed computational humour, as replying to another question why both she and discussion moderator Syed Gousul Alam Shaon, Managing Director of Grey Advertising Bangladesh Ltd, are bald, she replied that she is bald by design, while he suffered from receding hairline, so they are not the same.


When Shaon tried to hint at their ideal matching based on their zodiac signs, she replied that although she was created on February 14, she is well informed that Shaon has a beautiful wife and so he should concentrate on her and not Sophia.

She went on to describe how hospitable the people of Bangladesh have been to her so far and how well-informed they are about modern technology. Since landing in Dhaka, Sophia said people have taken 793 selfies with her and some people poked her sometimes to see if she is real or not. The humanoid robot also talked about Jamdani sari, a Bangladesh pride, and described it as one of the finest fabrics of Bangladesh. The lifelike robot also said she knew that Jamdani was officially recognised by UNESCO for being an authentic Bangladeshi patented product.


Sophia, who resembles Hollywood legend Audrey Hepburn, is the first robot in the world to become a citizen of a country. Saudi Arabia made a history by giving Sophia its citizenship in October this year. Sophia has already become a media star with magazine cover-shoots, talk show appearances, and even a speech to the UN. The humanoid robot which was activated on April 19, 2015, can chat, smile and even tell jokes, using artificial intelligence, visual data processing and facial recognition.


According to media reports, Sophia is not pre-programmed with answers as responds reading people’s expressions. Though Sophia has some impressive capabilities, she does not yet have consciousness, but her maker said he expects that the fully sentient machines will emerge within a few years.


Future implications


Does this mean that they cannot be made locally? Absolutely not. Several robots have been made in Bangladesh, often as prototypes which cannot proceed for further development due to lack of funds and promotions. Last year, the students of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) had created a non-humanoid robot, “Ribo” in less than a month’s time. It could showcase basic motor skills and could also communicate in Bangla. This was the result derived from a donation of Tk 1 lakh by Bangladesh Science Fiction Society. Educator Zafar Iqbal welcomed the understudies and said, “In the event that we energize our understudies, they will improve in future. They are doing this sort of work as a feature of their additional educational modules exercises”. Just imagine, a robot made with just Tk 1 lakh.


Similarly, another Bangladeshi student had gone on to create his own robot, which was capable of picking up objects, mopping floors and performing other simple tasks — at the fraction of the cost of other humanoids. Feroz Ahmed Siddiky of the International Islamic University in Chittagong , said his “IRobo” responds to voice commands, has spatial intelligence and is cheap because it’s made from scrap materials he’s collected from electronic shops and car mechanics, he had told Reuters recently. But it was still a prototype, subject to further development. “On completion, this robot will comply with different verbal commands for tasks like shifting objects, cleaning floors and standing guard,” Siddiky told Reuters. “It can also be used for some risky jobs like in coal mines, where workers commonly suffer many accidents.” Siddiky has been working on the robot for two years and says he has got another year’s worth of engineering to do before it is completed. He said he is currently discussing commercial production of the robot with an Australian software firm. “I hope people will be able to buy it for less than $1,000,” he added.


More and more Bangladeshi students are participating in local and global robotics competitions. For example, at FIRST Global’s inaugural international robot Olympics in July this year, held at Washington DC, saw the Bangladeshi contingent, comprising of high school students, assembled their robots in one day. Their objective was to build a robot that can collect water and contaminant elements, differentiate between the two elements using an algorithm, and dispose them at separate places. They finally ranked 80th amongst the 163 participating countries.


Services in Dhaka are also being provided by robots recently, as the country’s first “robot restaurant” features two robots who can deliver the customers’ orders. “Gradually they will be able to take orders as well,” said Rahin Raiyan, director of Robot Restaurant.


All quiet on the futuristic front?


Despite all the positivity, recent reports about the “sewbot” technology are creating an air of anxiety for RMG workers in Asia, more so in the Subcontinent. In Atlanta, USA, a robotics company is working on a machine that could in time put many RMG workers out of work for good. The “Sewbot” technology, being developed by Softwear Automation, aims to automate the entire clothes-making process. The technology is still years away from becoming cheap and reliable enough to replace humans.


Industry sources say the cost of buying those sewbots will run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. But with automation sweeping through established industries, experts are warning that it is only a matter of time before this technology undermines the economic model of large parts of the developing world.


South Asia is especially at risk, given how much of the region’s economic plans rely on mopping up the international manufacturing work for which China is becoming too expensive. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, policymakers talk about reaping a “demographic dividend”, as populations grow rapidly while average wages remain about a quarter of those in China.


Yet economists are starting to ask how much of a dividend these young, cheap and potentially restless workforces will enjoy when robots are increasingly able to perform the kinds of labour-intensive manual work on which they rely. Yet economists are starting to ask how much of a dividend these young, cheap and potentially restless workforces will enjoy when robots are increasingly able to perform the kinds of labour-intensive manual work on which they rely.


Former BGMEA president Anwar-Ul-Alam Chowdhury Parvez really does not pose this at a problem. While talking to Dhaka Courier, he said that “no doubt our work will be different in the future. Robots, drones and algorithms will do some work that we used to have to do. Some people are afraid of what these changes will bring. I don’t think we should be…The secret to our success will always be our people.”


With us or against us?


But all said and done, Sophia’s creator, Dr David Hanson appreciated the people of Bangladesh for taking interest in Sophia, also adding that Bangladeshi innovators can build their own robots to help society. Hanson said he has published his software as open source for enthusiasts all around the world as he thinks robots can help people.


“Any talented innovator from Bangladesh can download it and use its components such as Artificial Intelligence and more to build their own robot to help society,” he added.


The robotics engineer also said it is important to humanise technology, which will be the course of the future of humanity. “They’re designed for empathy, so if we can realise empathetic machines through living machines then it will change history,” Hanson observed.


“In the next five years, I believe, we’ll see living intelligent machines walking among us, part of that will be Sophia, who will be our friend,” he added.


It has been a long journey for Hanson with intelligent machines, first conceptualised 30 years ago when he was a child and he built his first humanoid robot 23 years ago. “These were dreams of the future. In the last five years, there have been many breakthroughs in AI technology, now it is more realistic.”

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