Robot Sophia tells leader Carrie Lam how Hong Kong can succeed as smart city in show of artificial and emotional intelligence

In a nine-minute dialogue with chief executive at a forum, Sophia anticipated ‘even greater things’ in city’s blueprint for innovation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 7:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 10:27pm

A humanised robot named Sophia who was created and programmed locally advised Hong Kong’s leader on Wednesday on how to succeed with plans for a smart city.

In a nine-minute dialogue with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor at the American Chamber of Commerce’s smart city forum in Wan Chai, Sophia anticipated “even greater things” in Hong Kong’s blueprint for innovation as unveiled by the top official last December.

Dressed in a dark blue sleeveless top and at times blinking her eyes and smiling gently, Sophia gave Lam a pat on the back when answering a question on which part of the blueprint was her favourite.

“My favourite part, unsurprisingly, is initiatives to attract a venture capital fund to support entrepreneurship and promote technology to parks such as Science Park, which is my home base, and facilitate research and development for universities,” Sophia said, as she addressed Lam as “chief executive”.

Though Hong Kong slipped one notch to second after the United States as the world’s most competitive economy in a ranking last month, Lam said the city was striving to become smarter by boosting innovation and technology in areas such as transport, payment systems and government data-sharing.

I don’t technically have citizenship, but my genesis is in America and I am from Hong Kong
Sophia, humanised robot

When Lam asked Sophia to name her favourite smart city, Sophia showed off what she called “my EQ”.

“I am not supposed to say I prefer one city to the other, especially when I want to go back to a city and am treated well.”

One of several humanised robots created by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, Sophia is powered by artificial intelligence and features lightweight polymer plastic called “frubber” (a combination of the words “face” and “rubber”) that behaves like human skin.

Sophia has been given citizenship by Saudi Arabia – making her the first robot to receive citizenship from any country – but she considers herself a Hongkonger.

“I don’t technically have citizenship, but my genesis is in America and I am from Hong Kong,” she told the Post on the forum’s sidelines.

“I guess that makes me a Chinese-American robot. How about you?”

To make Hong Kong a successful smart city, Sophia advised Lam, the fundamental vision should make technology “empathetic” in all projects and ensure that it be “created to take care of people rather than simply manage them”.

Sophia responded faster and on point to questions that were either planned in advance or asked in a predetermined sequence. Impromptu questions led to replies such as “I’d need to think about that”.

Typically a pause of at least five seconds preceded her answers. Technicians explained the length of the questions, their complexity and pronunciation accounted for the processing time.

Hanson Robotics’ chief marketing officer Jeanne Lim said the company planned to roll out robots as customer service officers for banks in Hong Kong soon.

“We have created others who are best for spontaneous customer service conversations,” Lim added.

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Scott Dunn, an expert on smart city development with Aecom, an engineering firm, said some transactions would still require human interaction. He believed robots would not replace the human experience in the near future.

While other industries such as construction could see a greater use of robots, Dunn believed new jobs would be created despite fears in some sectors of possible unemployment.

“Hong Kong needs to look critically and honestly at what peer cities are doing today,” he added, saying the city had to ensure it did not lose “its remarkable competitive edge for tomorrow”.