Kathriona Devereux: It was nice to meet you Sophia, but I’m wary of technology too

Becoming more aware of technology’s persuasive power and the impact it has on all aspects of our lives is increasingly important in the face of so much technological change, so says Kathriona Devereux
Kathriona Devereux: It was nice to meet you Sophia, but I’m wary of technology too
Kathriona Devereaux with Sophia.

LAST week, I met Sophia the Robot at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin’s Convention Centre.

The summit is a two-day motivational conference that aspires to inspire attendees for the year ahead. Lord Alan Sugar of TV’s The Apprentice fame and TV adventurer Bear Grylls were the star speakers this year and Sophia the Robot was one of the quirkier presentations. She was invited to spark a conversation about our relationship with technology and where humanity is going with our development of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Sophia is a celebrity robot — she has met the movie star Will Smith, appeared on This Morning in the UK and has addressed the United Nations. She is the creation of a team of people at Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong, has an expressive human-like face, and is programmed to respond to questions and even crack jokes (not very good ones!).

I was sharing the stage with her to discuss the wider issues of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data. I have met a few robots over the years and I’m fascinated by how data science and technology are changing the way we live, work and interact with each other.

The first proper robot I met was Honda’s Asimo robot in 2005 in Tokyo. He was a cute, white, 4ft humanoid robot. He was the first successful biped robot (walking on two legs is quite a difficult skill to replicate!) and famously kicked a soccer ball to President Obama.

More recently I had Ireland’s most famous robot, Stevie the Robot, on a TV show about positive ageing.

Stevie is the result of years of work by Professor Conor McGinn and his team at Trinity College Dublin and was on the cover of TIME magazine last year because it’s hoped that Stevie will be commercialised to work in nursing homes as a companion robot who carries out simple tasks.

LIFE-LIKE: Sophia the Robot on stage at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin last week.
LIFE-LIKE: Sophia the Robot on stage at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin last week.

The question that is always asked about robots is — will they take over the world? Lots of robots have artificial intelligence built in to help them perform their tasks autonomously, but some people, including Stephen Hawking and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, have expressed concern about the development of artificial intelligence, and the possibility of it surpassing human intelligence and threatening human existence.

AI scientists write algorithms that solve complex problems and ‘learn’ from the experience of solving lots of problems or being exposed to lots of information or data.

AI is already part of our everyday lives. Many people use AI systems like Alexa and Siri as virtual personal assistants and if you use Gmail to send emails you may have experienced Gmail finishing your sentences for you. This is the algorithm learning how people typically construct emails and then suggesting phrases to help you write an email faster.

But what does that do to us? To our brains? To have machines or algorithms finish our sentences! (You can switch off ‘Smart Reply’ in the Gmail settings if it annoys you too!)

The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ comes up frequently in discussions about ageing — if you’re not exercising your body and mind regularly, you lose function. I wonder will machines and robots ‘help’ us so much that we lose function.

Today, some algorithms successfully detect certain diseases, write academic textbooks and newspaper articles and find our perfect match on dating apps.

So many aspects of the human experience are influenced by technology — love, health, music, and relationships.

People, including data scientists themselves, get uncomfortable when they start to consider the ramifications of these technologies exploited fully. And that’s a good thing.

These are technologies that might change the way we live, work and relate to each other. Science should proceed with caution and in collaboration with society, consumers and citizens. We should be building in oversight to the technology as we go.

In Ireland, a National Strategy on AI is being developed to provide guidance regarding data ethics and future societal impacts.

The EU haw issued guidelines around AI research and is considering regulation.

However, last week the Trump administration in America, perhaps unsurprisingly, said regulators shouldn’t hamper AI innovation.

The internet is 30 years old — look what has been achieved in the last 30 years and how technology has transformed our lives — for good and bad.

You could expect that in the next 30 years we will see a similar level of change or disruption.

But some scientists think that such is the pace of computer science innovation that we can’t even begin to imagine how changed the landscape will be, and it will be more like the difference between now and 100 years ago in terms of technological progress.

Last week, Sophia the Robot argued that technology brings us together, but sometimes our smartphone can bring us closer to someone far away from us but further away from the person sitting next to us on the couch.

Becoming more aware of technology’s persuasive power and the impact it has on all aspects of our lives is increasingly important in the face of so much technological change.

I’m not a technophobe, but my New Year’s resolution is to switch off more. I’ve removed social media apps from my phone and don’t bring my phone to bed.

Let’s see if it’ll bring me closer to the people next to me!

Kathriona Devereux is a Cork science communicator and broadcaster and co-presents RTÉ’s science series 10 Things to Know About.

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