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Think About What She Can Do

There is a new robot in town. Her name is Sophia. She was designed and built by Hanson Robotics.

And she is popular. Sophia was featured on the Jimmy Kimmel show, has appeared on the cover of Elle, and was recently granted honorary citizenship by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But not everyone likes Sophia. There has been considerable resistance from experts in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. For these critics, Sophia is nothing more than a puppet —more smoke and mirrors and less actual science. And they are not necessarily wrong.

She is a kind of performer. But that might actually be the important insight. We are in the process of constructing robots to fulfill all kinds of roles in our lives — digital assistants, home healthcare providers, customer service representatives ... the list goes on.

Maybe what really matters is the role that these technological performers play and not the actors behind the scenes. In other words, it might be the case that agonizing about what Sophia actually is or is not might not be as interesting and engaging as the social roles she occupies and embodies.

As with some of our favorite actors, it is often the characters they portray on the stage that affect us most. Who they really are is often not as important, sometimes disappointing and, in the final analysis, just a line item in the gossip column.

Perhaps we should be focusing on the act and not the actor.

I’m David Gunkel, and that’s my perspective.

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