There is a lesson for Sophia — the humanoid Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine who was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia last year — from the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Salman Khan. Being human, Being in itself really, is never complete. People continue to try and fail, to be lazy and capricious, good and generous, but they are never done. Sophia, it appears, hasn’t quite caught on that it is this failure that defines humanity. Or she is just trying to show-off.
Speaking at an event organised by the United Nations Development Programme in Kathmandu earlier this week, Sophia did her best to allay the fears around machines, robots and AI. Rather than taking away jobs and changing the nature of labour, or even interfering with political autonomy and choice, technology will make life easier, end poverty and connect people, Sophia insisted. And Sophia made another promise too — she would become the first non-human to summit Mount Everest. Sophia, it seems, does not realise that it is the heights of her ambition that cause discomfort to some.
In popular science fiction, there are two broad archetypes of AI. The first is Skynet, the all-knowing algorithm from The Terminator that was designed to help humanity think better but promptly went on to enslave it as it achieved sentience. Then there’s Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, an android constantly trying to be human who often fails at relationships, friendships and life, but keeps trying nevertheless. Data is likeable because he is like us. Skynet is scary because it is perfect. While promoting the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Sophia promised perfection and limitless ambition. To those who are being left behind, her purpose would be better served if she talked about the joys of a lazy Sunday, of setbacks and embarrassments. After all, no one starts mountain-climbing with Everest.