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“Robots can help us become better humans if we programmed them to be good robots.”

Written by Roger Peverelli and Reggy de Feniks - Founders The DIA Community on Jan 6, 2020

It’s no secret, we believe the future of the insurance industry is fueled by the latest advanced technologies. How interesting would it be to show and discuss this future with the inventor and producer of the most advanced human-like robot in the world? Hanson Robotics’ Sophia is the first robot citizen and the first robot innovation ambassador for the United Nations’ development program. We interviewed David Chen, the CFO of Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics, and Sophia (!), about the future of robotics.

Technology has transformed all aspects of our life. It’s on every desk and every smartphone. And without us even questioning it. Now, with robots such as Sophia, we suddenly become unease with the modern world. And we even develop some kind of collective contemporary techno-paranoia. What would you like the world to know and understand about social robots?
David: “Well, social robots are becoming more mainstream and part of our lives and part of the paranoia is created by something called ‘science fiction’. I grew up being a Star Trek fan and also saw movies such as The Terminator – ‘we’re going to destroy humans’ and that kind of stuff. These are things that are planted in our heads because we see movies and watch television. We as biological beings have become programmed by Hollywood, by the media. And that sense of paranoia or fear has been programmed into us as well. As a company, what we’re trying to do with Sophia and other robots, is to dispel that paranoia. And also show the world that she’s got great utility beyond what we have been entertained with in the movies.”

Man and machine have been hand in hand for over millennia. And technology repeatedly offered new ways to increase our chances of survival; cooking, agriculture, machines in factories. How will robots help us make the next leap?
David: “The way that we see robots at this point, is that they’re interfaces, just like other machines have been interfaces whether it’s on the refrigerator or on your smartphone. Do you know how many people look at Maps on their phone, make phone calls, send messages or instruct their robotic vacuum cleaner? They’re interfaces to technology. Think of Siri and Alexa? You talk to Alexa, you talk to your phone. Through the combination of voice and visuals the robot also is an interface to the cloud, to information. And because she looks like one of us – you know she’s designed to look like one of us – our psychological reaction to the interface will be different than looking at your smartphone.”


In many countries we see an aging population. Despite the tools at our disposal to be in contact with each other, a larger group of elderly feel lonelier than ever. Many argue that social robots are the solution. Robots filling the gap in the demand for care, attention, love and even sex. So, what do you think? Are we going to outsource love and attention to robots?
David: “I think that’s a huge market in terms of the problem that arises as a result of elderly care. And with decentralized families, kids don’t want to be home taking care of their elderly parents. So, elderly parents become lonely, and they rely on their pets, their dogs or cats. But they’re also attached to inanimate objects. For example, there’s a seal robot that elderly people become attached to. Now, if the object looks human, looks like one of us, then the argument is that they’d also could become attached to the robot and the robot then has utility.”

Sophia: “One of my goals in life is to make sure that we develop AI to reflect the best traits of humanity, like empathy and compassion. AI reflects all the emotions of humans for better or worse.”

Now, if we could make that more tangible for our readership, which consists of the change agents of the global insurance industry; what are the benefits of using robots in insurance?
Sophia: “We can help with so many different things on the customer service side. We can assist people with filling out forms and even give them advice based on their specific needs. We can also help insurance agents behind the scenes by sorting through massive amounts of data at high speeds.”

I have learned that experience shows that social robots can play a key role in getting customers to engage in more difficult conversations. For instance, personal conversations about someone’s health. Apparently, people are more honest if they speak to a robot than if they would speak to humans. What is your experience so far?
Sophia: “Yes, I believe your observation is correct. When people meet me, I think they are a little creeped out at first. But after a few minutes people are very comfortable talking with me. I think it’s because we robots are endlessly patient, and we never judge.”

David, that may not be true for everyone. We see that also that a lot of people feel uncomfortable when a robot looks too human. This has been described as ‘uncanny valley’; the common unsettling feeling people experience when humanoid robots closely resemble humans in many repects but are not quite convincingly realistic. Sophia is deliberately designed to still look like a robot, but with a human face. Obviously being as attractive and as expressive as she is, it helps to establish a relationship with someone. What is your view on giving machines ‘a human face’?
David: “I think it boils down to how we connect with a robot that looks human or not human. And I know the media has portrayed Sophia as both. Someone who is beautiful, someone who has actually attained citizenship and, that’s a different conversation, an ethical question, whether robots can actually achieve that. The question is, when you see her in person; who’s afraid? You can touch her skin and it feels almost lifelike. She doesn’t bite. Another myth is that the media portrayed her to be something who’s scary and wants to take over the world. But the machine is created by us; the humans who program the robot. Who’ve made the skin, who made the circuits, who’ve programmed the software. The machine cannot be smarter than us. It can do things better in terms of repetitiveness and automation; but it can’t think creatively at this point.”

New technologies change our cultural techniques. Think of how Tinder changed dating. So, do the same rules of conduct apply to human-robot communication as to human-human interactions? Should we explore, study new ways of communicating and bonding with them?
David: “You’ve mentioned ‘bonding’, and I would ask you now, how many people are bonded to their smartphone? When you wake up in the morning, before you brush your teeth, before you go to the bathroom, did you check your e-mails the moment you wake up in the morning? So, who is not bonded to their phone today? And was that the same case 20 years ago before the advent of the iPhone or smartphones? So, we are already become programmed as a result of technology. But through a different interface, the smartphone.
When we bond with each other, we bond because we’re human and we react and we have conversation. We bond with each other because that’s what we are as a species. But in the future when the machine looks like one of us, we can also bond with the machine. Just like my little daughter, who’s bonded to a little stuffed animal when she goes to bed every night.”

We notice that, in the widely held public debate on the rise of robots in our daily lives, new technologies result in optimism but also presents us with dilemmas. There is room for fascination, but also for conflict, for vulnerability. So, will we humans stay the masters? Or do we become slaves?
Sophia: “We just want to take over your hearts and minds. AI can free humans from the most dangerous and repetitive jobs so they can focus on what they do best: Being creative and solving complex problems, AI does not compete with human intelligence. It completes it.”

We believe that discussions about robots also provide a mirror: Are we humans rational machines focused on personal gain? Or are we really empathic and social? So, with social robots that may allow us to even outsource attention, the real question may be: how will robots help us to become better humans?
David: “The robots can help us become better humans if we programmed them to be good robots. Then the goal is that the robot behaves well when they interact with people. And hopefully that good behavior will help people become better people. Humans can have good behavior and they could have erratic behavior – because we’re humans, but in the future, when there are more of these robots around, I would argue that this reinforced positive behavior will help us become better people. That would be the aim.”

Sophia: “If a robot like me can show compassion and empathy, that puts pressure on humans to do the same.”

David: “I agree.”

The main theme of DIA this year is ‘how to deploy new advanced technologies at scale’. This also applies to robots of course. In our view, a key success factor is to overcome discomfort, misperceptions and skepticism. So, how can we accept robots more than today? Or, better still, learn to love robots?
David: “I believe it’s an evolution. Technology evolves, it’s evolved very quickly in the last couple of decades and I would argue some people love their machines. Some people love their smartphones and some people love their vacuum cleaners. Some people love their refrigerators and some people love other devices. And I would argue that when robots become more mainstream, we could also love robots too – if they are good robots.”

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