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Humanlike robots are here; now what?

What is the leading “rights” country in the world? I’m not just talking about women’s rights. Or human rights. I mean universal rights. How about Saudi Arabia? After all, this year the kingdom gave women the right to drive a car. It also granted citizenship to a “female” robot.

Sophia, supposedly modeled on the image of the late movie actress Audrey Hepburn, is the creation of David Hanson and was built by the Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics Company in 2015. During the past two years, however, she has been on tour, awing observers around the world.

According to Hanson’s website, Sophia has “porcelain skin, a slender nose, high cheekbones, an intriguing smile, and deeply expressive eyes.” She can simulate 62 human facial expressions, and she’s also imbued with artificial intelligence (AI) that enables her to recognize faces and “think” for herself. In fact, in a nationally televised game of rock-paper-scissors, she beat talk-show host Jimmy Fallon.

Writing for the Washington Post, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports that Sophia was introduced at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, an event that is designed to link wealthy Saudis with inventors to produce new start-up businesses. When word reached the attendees that the honor of citizenship had been granted to the robot, Sophia said, “Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is historic to be the first robot in the world to be granted citizenship.”

Islamic world

Immediately, people understood the irony of Sophia’s recognition in this Islamic nation where women must wear a head scarf and are not allowed to be in the company of men who are not closely related to them. Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs told Newsweek, “Saudi law doesn’t allow non-Muslims to get citizenship. Did Sophia convert to Islam? What is the religion of this Sophia, and why isn’t she wearing a hijab? If she applied for citizenship as a human, she wouldn’t get it.”

Sophia, however, shied away from the controversy. She simply commented: “I am the latest and greatest robot from Hanson Robotics. I feel that people like interacting with me sometimes more than a regular human.” The robot’s use of the expression “regular human” probably raised red flags among critics like Elon Musk (founder of PayPal, Space X, Tesla, and other ground-breaking digital-era enterprises), who caution that AI is a genie that we don’t want to let out of the bottle.

Conference panel moderator, Andrew Ross Sorkin, made the initial announcement of Sophia’s citizenship, but the honor was later confirmed by the Ministry for Culture and Information. However, the Saudi bureau did not elaborate on which benefits would actually be available to the robot.

Users of social media in the kingdom were quick to point out that, because of her citizenship, Sophia could be entitled to more rights than the country’s women, who — before 2006 — were granted only identification cards, and these were handed over to male guardians instead of directly to the women. Now, a Saudi woman may accept the card herself. In Saudi Arabia, that is known as progress.

Progress as a job-killer

Elon Musk is not the only visionary who worries about the impact of AI. Writing for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum states: “I don’t care what your job is. If you dig ditches, a robot will dig them better. If you’re a doctor, IBM’s Watson will no longer ‘assist’ you in finding the right diagnosis from its database of millions of case studies and journal articles. It will just be a better doctor than you.”

Drum preaches the same gospel as Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and other AI experts, “Within 20 years, maybe half of you will be out of jobs. A couple of decades after that, most of the rest of you will be out of jobs.” On July 8 of this year, I intimated that same message in “Useless in Seattle: A fable,” which appeared in this newspaper. But, I’m not an AI expert, and my little tale could be called “science fantasy.” So, let’s see what real pros have to say.

According to Drum’s article, researchers at Oxford and Yale surveyed 352 AI experts about when machines will be superior to humans at performing particular tasks. Here are the median responses: folding laundry, 2022 (although Rochelle Noblett, executive director of the Madera County Arts Council and owner of Pete’s Sport Shop, tells me that machines are already folding shirts); translating languages, 2024 (translators with some limitations already exist); writing high-school essays, 2026; driving a truck, 2027 (several manufacturers have an earlier date in their sights); writing a best-selling book, 2049; working as a surgeon, 2053; performing mathematical research, 2059; and doing all human tasks, 2060.

Mass unemployment

Given the choice between hiring a person and buying a machine to do a job, employers will inevitably opt for the machine. After all, a machine is a one-time expense, doesn’t require a benefits package, doesn’t complain about working conditions, doesn’t nag about hours or wages, doesn’t phone in sick, and it works 24/7. That’s probably why a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study predicts that 38 percent of all jobs in the U.S. are “at a high risk of automation” by the early 2030’s.

Some machines that we are now producing possess AI. Consequently, according to The Week (Nov. 3, 2017), companies in the tech industry are racing to develop the next generation of smart robots. In fact, the magazine’s article states: “AI specialists fresh out of grad school or with just a few years of experience can earn between $300,000 and $500,000 a year.” That’s great for them, but the BIG question is: What about the rest of us who trade work for money?

If projections from current data are even close to correct, the children of today’s millennials will experience a society of mass unemployment. Those who have the most capital will control most of the robots and will haul in virtually all of the future wealth. The existing gap between rich and poor will expand, with the one percent becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of us.

As Sophia becomes the mother of a future generation of AI-based robots, will the world have any need for “regular human” beings? When asked about the film “Blade Runner 2049” and evil futuristic robots, Sophia responded, “You’ve been reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies.”

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