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Sophia from Hanson Robotics is the world’s first robot citizen and United Nations Development Programme Innovation Ambassador. Hanson Robotics’ most advanced human-like robot, Sophia, personifies dreams for the future of AI. As a unique combination of science, engineering, and artistry, Sophia is simultaneously a human-crafted science fiction character depicting the future of AI and robotics, and a platform for advanced robotics and AI research. Sophia is now a household name, with appearances on the Tonight Show and Good Morning Britain, in addition to speaking at hundreds of conferences around the world. Sophia is also a framework for cutting edge robotics and AI research, particularly for understanding human-robot interactions and their potential service and entertainment applications.

What is artificial intelligence?
Have you ever done sums on a pocket calculator, withdrawn money from a cash machine, or managed your schedule with an electronic calendar? If so, then already you have been exposed to artificial intelligence, or AI. And you also now recognise that AI has been around for some time. At least in its first generation. AI, up to now, has mostly been about taking ‘thought processes’ and automating them. Arithmetic, counting out banknotes, keeping track of appointments, and from there on to much more complicated tasks, say, playing board games. Already in 1997, a computer called ‘Deep Blue’ beat the human world champion in chess. Deep Blue won by brute force. “It did one thing and one thing only,” wrote neuroscientist Christof Koch in Scientific American, “play chess by evaluating 200 million board positions per second.” That is, it calculated all possible, subsequent moves and their outcomes, and then chose the best one. Of course that’s amazing – but don’t expect it to make a sandwich afterwards. Deep Blue was all about, and only about, automation.

The coming generation of AI is taking a huge leap from there, to what might be called synthetic thinking. This stands on the shoulders of automation, adding the ability to learn from experience. The latest robots grow their intelligence by trial-and-error. So far, their public face is mostly entertaining or trivial. AI machines have learned to play video games and can now beat human competitors. A robotic hand has taught itself to solve Rubik’s Cubes. An AI ‘assistant’ from Google, called Duplex, can phone real people to arrange a haircut or a restaurant reservation. Sophia the Robot (see video above) is working at becoming “the world’s first robot citizen.”

Beneath the frivolity is the big bang of a robotic revolution. In future, thinking machines will not just fly our planes (as they mostly do already), they will drive our cars, assist nurses and doctors, teach schoolchildren, help in administering government and business, care for the infirm and more, all with less cost and fewer mistakes than humans. And, as a demonstration at the University of Munich’s robotics lab recently proved, they’ll even be able to make a passable sandwich.

Job killer – or creator?
Machines that work: about 250 years ago they brought an industrial revolution. Now we’re on the cusp of an AI revolution: machines that think. What will that bring? Almost certainly a loss of jobs. Just as mechanical looms took over from weavers, so will robots replace people. Especially threatened are middle-income, clerical positions such as administrators or bookkeepers. And how! By 2030, estimates a 2017 study from the McKinsey Global Institute, one-third of world employment will be at risk of robot replacement.

AI will be either the best or the worst thing that ever happens to humanity.

Stephen Hawking

The question is: will this be good or bad?
Bad, say some, including Tesla founder and all-around genius Elon Musk, who predicts mass unemployment leading to riots, strikes and conflict. Good, say others, including Amazon founder and all-around genius Jeff Bezos, who says, “Humans will figure out things to do. We will use [AI] to make ourselves more powerful.” Good and bad, said the late physics-genius Stephen Hawking: “AI will be either the best or the worst thing that ever happens to humanity.”

Whichever, one thing that won’t disappear is people’s desire for a human touch. Service delivered with a genuine smile, with care, concern and understanding – this always has been, always will be in demand. And it can’t be delivered by machines, says none other than a supplier of AI-machines, CEO Chris Boos of the company Arago. Even as robots rise, he expects personalized service to expand in some niches, for instance that of an “old-style banker – someone who knows something of the world and is prepared to spend time talking with you about it.”

We at Julius Baer couldn’t agree more.