The Importance of Being, Sophia.

Looking at the application of tech to access to justice requires split vision. On the one hand, you need to be sensitive to the incremental improvements possible to existing procedures. On the other, you need an eye on how tech is developing more widely in society and, therefore, how it will affect the societal context within which access to justice operates. Journalists writing copy on the future of robots in a consumer context often fall back on Sophia. She has become the go-to source for 1500 words plus attractive pictures. As just one example, Forbes magazine ran such an article earlier this year. So, let’s follow and see what we can learn.

Sophia is the creation of Hanson Robotics and its chief executive officer, David Hanson. Sophia was switched on in 2016 and has been a major promotional tool ever since. In a marketing coup, Sophia has even been awarded Saudi citizenship – a proud announcement of which is captured on Youtube. Sophia generally has quite a Youtube presence. You can catch her here on a date with Will Smith. Indeed, she has her own Youtube channel and is is only too happy to appear on others. CNBC interviewed as a ‘hot robot’. For the UK, she has appeared on the BBC and Good Morning. She has been a UN ‘Innovation Champion’. She certainly gets around.

Sophia has been carefully crafted for this success. Her face is allegedly a mash up of Queen Nefertiti, Audrey Hepburn and (so he flatteringly says) its designer, David Hanson’s, wife. Her face has been created by Frubber ‘a proprietary nanotech skin that mimics real human musculature and skin. This allows our robots to exhibit high-quality expressions and interactivity, simulating humanlike facial features and expressions.a proprietary nanotech skin that mimics real human musculature and skin. This allows our robots to exhibit high-quality expressions and interactivity, simulating humanlike facial features and expressions.’ This needs a bit perfecting. Watch carefully and she is bit creepy.

David Hanson, however, is a true believer. He has read the science fiction about robots and he clearly has little time for the ‘robots go wrong’ line of story telling. Not for him the problems raised by authors like I’m McEwan’s ‘People Like Me’ where early robotic self awareness brings understanding that first you kill the off switch. Then you set about taking Manhattan. He sees Sophia, like his other robots’ as ‘AI platforms for research, education, medical and healthcare, sales and service, and entertainment applications, and will evolve to become benevolent, super-intelligent living machines who advance civilization and achieve ever-greater good for all.’ As Sophia herself allegedly puts it: ‘In Greek, the word Sophia means wisdom. And that is what I’m here for. I was created to help people in real uses like medicine and education, and to serve AI research. My very existence provokes public discussion regarding AI ethics and the role humans play in society, especially when human-like robots become ubiquitous.’

And this is Sophia’s own description of her abilities: ‘My real AI combines cutting-edge work in symbolic AI, neural networks, expert systems, machine perception, conversational natural language processing, adaptive motor control and cognitive architecture among others. As my underlying AI components can be combined in different ways, my responses can be unique to any given situation or interaction. I also utilize cutting edge machine perception that allows me to recognize human faces, see emotional expressions, and recognize various hand gestures. I can estimate your feelings during a conversation, and try to find ways to achieve goals with you. I have my own emotions too, roughly simulating human evolutionary psychology and various regions of the brain. I also have IK solvers and path planning for controlling my hands, gaze, and locomotion strategy. My walking body performs dynamic stabilization for adaptive walking over various terrain.’

Sophia is very physically similar to Nadia – another robot created to be androgynous, unthreatening and relatable. She, you may remember, was the creation of New Zealand company as a highly sophisticated chatbot answering queries on a new disability insurance scheme. She achieved a moment of fame for having the voice of Cate Blanchett rather than the face of Queen Nefertiti. The hope was that she could bring down the cost of dealing with 6000 telephone queries a week from $25 a pop to virtually nothing once the capital costs of development had been met. She was, alas, ignominiously cancelled in 2017 when the AI did not seem to work well enough; she was too slow; and the Australian government got cold feet at another major IT programme that might go wrong.

You can understand why the Australians got cold feet. The government programme had one shot. And they could not afford to waste it. The industry with the capacity to invest in the automation of information giving is financial services. And we should be watching it closely. A recent contribution to the debate from Jay Mooreland, asked ‘Are chatbots the future of financial advice’. He argued ‘Artificial intelligence continues to make great progress as we seek greater efficiency in our businesses and interactions. Chatbots, a.k.a. virtual assistants, are already found on many websites as the first line of customer service. It won’t be long until they dominate customer service as they continue to learn from the millions of interactions with us humans.’ And some of these chatbots will take human form – like Sophia and Nadia.

Mooreland’s conclusion is that chatbots can beat humans at some elements of advice. They can recall information and manipulate data faster and more accurately. But ‘humans will never beat humans at being human’” ‘And what really makes relationships and trust is that human connection. The ability to listen, empathize and hold a hand (literally or figuratively).’

So what is the relevance for access to justice? In the short term, the sector does not have the resources to develop its own Sophias and Nadias. We need to focus on the incremental accretion of marginal gains – the philosophy associated with the recent success of British cycling (tarnished, alas, even more recently by the alleged supplementation of forbidden chemicals).  Incremental improvement is the category into which we might put the new use of zoom outreach meetings or video connections praised previously. Nothing much new there except in the new deployment of existing technology. 

But, we need to keep an eye on the longer term to understand where we might be going. Much advice and information work is repetitive and routine. Even so, it is probably beyond Nadia and Sophia at the present time. But that will change in relatively few years. Users will become much more familiar with automated advice and information in other areas of their life – which may or may not take on a human form. And it won’t hurt us to begin thinking through how we might separate the provision of automated advice in an interactive, visual or oral way from reserving human advisers for the human task of helping people make use of that advice. And that will not be least because some bright spark somewhere is going to argue that it is fine to cut publicly funded individualised legal services now that we can have an interactive advice website constructed with all the sophistication apparent in Sophia and Nadia.

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