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Roboticists try putting a human face on AI

Image: Sophia and Ava
Hanson Robotics’ Sophia (left) represents the state of the art in “friendly” AI robots, while the AI robot Ava from “Ex Machina” (played by Alicia Vikander, at right) represents a sci-fi vision of where the robotics field could go. (Credit: CNBC / Hanson Robotics / A24 Films)

Can artificially intelligent robots be our friends? Our helpmates? Our companions? Roboticists and AI researchers are trying to make it so – and the first fruits of their labors are about to come onto the market. But there are already hints that the efforts will touch some of humanity’s hot buttons.

Take Hanson Robotics, for example: Its latest creation, Sophia, combines an AI chatbot with an expressive humanlike face. She can talk enthusiastically about helping humans in health care, education and customer service. But she can also go off script.

“Do you want to destroy humans? Please say no,” roboticist David Hanson, the company’s founder, asked Sophia during a CNBC interview at this month’s South By Southwest technology conference in Texas.

“OK, I will destroy humans,” it replied. “No, I take it back!” Hanson said with a laugh.

Closer to home, a Microsoft teen chatbot named Tay was hijacked by mischievous Twitter users and transformed into a foul-mouthed racist, less than 24 hours after it was released onto the Internet. Microsoft had to take Tay offline, delete the offending Tweets and try resetting its AI attitude.

Such problems shouldn’t be surprising to science fiction fans, who have been pummeled by robo-dystopias ranging from the classic 1927 film “Metropolis” to last year’s “Ex Machina.” But despite the challenges, scores of companies around the world are working on robots that are meant to have the smarts and the actuators necessary to interact with humans in everyday environments.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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