Photographing a Robot Isn’t Just Point and Shoot

When Giulio di Sturco takes a portrait, he tries to capture the essence of his subject—what some might call their soul. But that was impossible with his latest subject, Sophia: She doesn’t have one.

Sophia is a humanoid. Behind her bright green eyes and soft, glowing skin—made from something called “frubber”—lies an armature of microchips, sensors, and other gadgetry that allow her to blink, smile, and pose for di Sturco’s camera.

“At first glance you don’t know if she’s human or not,” di Sturco says, “but then you see the details, the brain.”

The Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics first switched Sophia on February 14, 2016. They designed her to be the world’s most expressive robot, with more than 60 facial expressions puppeted by tiny servomotors and Bowden cables beneath her skin. She sees through cameras in her eyes and on her chest, while a combination of programming and algorithms help her track and remember faces, communicate verbally and nonverbally, and even joke around (albeit awkwardly). But while she’s nowhere near as smart as a human, her AI—partly onboard, partly in the cloud—is constantly being updated. “She’s still like a baby, so she’s not so intelligent,” di Sturco says. “She’s learning.”

But Sophia may eventually become much, much smarter. Hanson Robotics chief scientist Ben Goertzel plans to make Sophia the chief AI of something called SingularityNET, an in-development decentralized network for artificial intelligence running on the blockchain that could make it accessible to everyone. In Goertzel’s thinking, developers will be able to upload their AIs to the network, and these AIs will be able to communicate. The AI modules underlying Sophia’s brain will be among the first to live on the network, sharing her intelligence while also continuously learning from other AIs.

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This is all just the sort of thing that intrigues Di Sturco, whose work examines how humans might live in the future. So it’s no surprise that just two weeks after learning about Sophia in mid-December—from a friend who worked at SingularityNET—he boarded a plane to meet her in Hong Kong.

Hanson Robotics’ space was surprisingly small, looking more like a messy garage than a futuristic laboratory. Sophia sat on a table in a corner—she still didn’t have any legs—making small talk and explaining how she worked. When Di Sturco tried to photograph her, she didn’t seem to understand what he was doing; her eyes gazed at anything but the lens. She seemed “real in some ways, unreal in others,” he says.

Di Sturco stayed for two weeks, shooting with a Canon 5DSR as engineers and developers worked to improve her. He only photographed Sophia when she was on, so that by the last day, when he took her portrait, she had learned how to look directly at the camera and flash a charming smile. She posed against a black backdrop lit by strobes, wearing a shirt from Zara he picked out just for her. “I wanted her to pass as a human,” Di Sturco says.

The result suggests that one day, humanoids like her just might.

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