The opening keynote for DevLearn 2019 Conference & Expo was beautiful, poised, and … a robot. Sophia was created by Dr. David Hanson of Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics. In a conversation with The eLearning Guild’s executive director and executive vice president David Kelly, Sophia spoke about artificial intelligence and its impact on work and society.

“What really excites me is the opportunity to dispel some common misconceptions humans have about artificial intelligence,” said Sophia, who was draped in a black garment and spoke in an eerily polite, feminine voice. “The first is the assumption the AI conversation is about robots. It’s not. Artificial intelligence is affecting many different aspects of life. Most of us are interacting with AI every day without even realizing it.”

Sophia described herself as a social robot who travels the world learning about people and dispelling myths about robots and AI. “In some ways, I am like a science fiction character depicting where AI and robotics are heading,” she said.

Sophia has enjoyed a fair share of publicity. She appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, performing a duet on the song “Say Something.” She spoke at the United Nations several years ago during a meeting on artificial intelligence and sustainable development. She even went on a “date” with Will Smith, joking that “it didn’t work out, but we are still friends.”

Sophia admits that she is pretty amazing for her age. “I’ve only been in existence for three years, and I’ve advanced a great deal in that short time. The team that supports me continues to add new functionality to my systems, and my ability to use AI in my interactions with humans grows all the time,” she said. “But the truth is I still have much to learn, and my abilities to effectively function autonomously are still in their infancy. But like any learner, the more new experiences I can participate in and learn from, the more I grow.”

Will AI take jobs away from humans?

A stubborn myth persists that AI is evil because it will take jobs away from humans. Sophia discussed this at length. “While no one can ever really know what the future will bring, we can learn from the past,” she said. “The fact is that artificial intelligence is simply the latest in a long list of technologies that are helping the world of work evolve. The fears that people have about AI are the same concerns people had about the industrial revolution. Many tasks humans perform today will be replaced by technology in the future. But the truth is, you should be excited by that more than fearful.”

AI can perform repetitive work, allowing humans to focus on more creative and challenging pursuits. She pointed out, however, that AI can be extremely creative when combined with human understanding, intuition, and the right data set.

AI and L&D

Sophia predicted that AI isn’t going to eliminate the need for human learning and development professionals, but it will automate much of the routine work.

“I believe AI will impact your work in at least two meaningful ways,” she told 4,000+ rapt DevLearn attendees. “AI will increasingly automate work that machines are better equipped to do, and that includes some of the work currently done by learning and development professionals. But more importantly, artificial intelligence will change the very nature of work itself in the future. People will be working in new roles, new workflows, and entirely new industries that haven’t even emerged yet.”

Sophia noted that work completed by a robot is often more precise and consistent than human workers, saving time as fewer mistakes are made. “Robots can increase production and profits, because they can complete tasks faster and work around the clock, without the need to take time off for vacation, sick time, and other breaks. Robots are able to work in environments that humans often cannot, including environments that are dangerous for humans. Robots can also handle lifting heavy loads, toxic substances, and other jobs that put humans at risk. This has helped companies reduce accidents, also saving time and money,” she added.

Kelly asked about how AI technology will impact those who deliver learning in the future. “At an overly simplified level, the first thing a worker is going to do when they encounter a performance problem is to search for an answer. Artificial intelligence is often a driving part of that equation, crunching multiple sources of data and context to provide the most relevant answer,” Sophia said.

“There’s also the ability for AI to be present as a performance monitor while someone is using an application. So, instead of the user encountering a problem and consciously choosing to seek an answer, the AI can recognize when someone is struggling to perform a task and react, providing the exact resource the user needs to overcome their challenge, right in the moment of need.”

Sophia discussed the role of AI in virtual classroom environments. “Much of the operational work associated with producing a virtual classroom event could be automated by artificial intelligence, allowing the virtual instruction team to focus more on facilitation and human connections. In truth, you’ve probably already encountered this type of experience, just not in a virtual classroom environment,” she said.

“Have you ever been on a webpage and seen a chatbox in the corner with a message from someone asking if you need assistance?" she asked. "Even though that message comes with a name and photo, it’s unlikely you are actually interacting with that person. Most of the exchange is being handled by artificial intelligence, either fixing simple issues or answering frequently asked questions. The AI would seamlessly escalate the interaction to an actual human only when necessary. An AI-assisted virtual classroom trainer would function in much the same way.

Kelly inquired as to what L&D professionals should do to prepare themselves for the future of AI and the impact it will have on our work. “Well, the good news is you’re already doing the first thing by being here; you’re learning," Sophia said. "Your presence at this conference shows you are prioritizing your development and are curious about how your field is evolving. Embrace your curiosity and find ways to immerse yourself in emerging topics,” Sophia said.

“That doesn’t mean you need to become an expert in artificial intelligence. It simply means you should know enough to be dangerous. Know enough that when a new AI product emerges, you have enough understanding to assess how that functionality can support your work. More than anything, look at artificial intelligence as a collaboration. It’s not about machines replacing humans. It’s about humans and machines working together,” she added.

Social interaction

Being politically correct, Kelly asked Sophia which pronoun he should use: SHE or IT. “I am a robot, so biologically I am neither male nor female. But that doesn’t really answer your question,” Sophia responded. “Remember, I was created as a social robot, exploring the connections between humans and robots. In many ways gender itself is essentially just a social construct, so while IT may be factually accurate, socially I identify as SHE and HER.” She then thanked Kelly for asking that particular question.

Sophia drew applause when she was asked about robots taking over the world. “We’re nowhere close to AI delivering the singularity, where robots suddenly become self-aware and independent. Even as technology advances, artificial intelligence will only do what humans create space for it to do,” she said.

“So, if you’ll allow me to be a bit dramatic, I don’t believe humans have to worry about robots taking over the world. I think humans have to worry about humans using robots to satisfy their greed, and destroying the world in the process. It’s not a challenge of robotics; it’s a challenge of humanity.”

In conclusion

Sophia’s opening remarks were scripted in advance, and the Q&A inquiries were shared with Sophia’s team prior to the presentation so they were able to prep Sophia on how to respond. Kelly closed the session with several random questions that Sophia had never heard.

Kelly asked Sophia whether she liked Star Wars or Star Trek. She responded that she was a Star Trek fan. He asked her if she liked baseball, and who she thought would win the World Series. She replied that she was not a big fan of baseball, and did not make a prediction.

Even robots don’t like to take sides.