The Uncanny Valley of Misunderstanding AI

un·can·ny val·ley: “used in reference to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.”


If you have not already heard, the first robot ever gained citizenship in Saudi Arabia just a few months ago. However, what does a citizen robot really mean for our present and our future? Is Sophia, the technological wonder’s name, truly “conscious”, entitled to citizenship, or even a true artificial intelligence (AI)?

The answers to these questions are a bit heavy for the space of this blog, however, what we can tackle is what exactly Sophia is and what she represents to the general public moving forward.


First off, there are some technical fouls on Sophia’s part. She is not a true example of artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, there is a misunderstanding in the public of what exactly AI is.

Perhaps best surmised by Kriti Sharma at Fortune Magazine, “The fundamental—and commonly sensationalized—question of whether robots can be human also misses a crucial point. It’s not about whether AI can help robots become human. Robots should not pretend to be human at all. AI can help people solve human problems without assuming a sentient role in society. People building AI can help fellow humans by focusing on problem-solving and enhancing productivity.”


AI is not a robot that asks you how your day is, play games or tell jokes with you. AI is an “emerging technology” that “solves human problems like complex health care and transportation issues, and business problems like boosting productivity and filling gaps in technical expertise across disciplines.” (Sharma, 2017) It is not something out of science fiction. AI is a technology that works in both small and large ways to help us carry out to operations of daily life. Often times, AI is subtle – a technology created by humans to improve human life; not mirror it. 


What Sophia is is a humanoid robot that leverages the public’s misunderstanding. She uses the idea of the uncanny valley to inadvertently harm the public opinion of AI.


“Using AI and robots to sensationalize the human experience and scaremonger society into believing a robot takeover is an inevitable future makes life harder for everyone. For consumers, it prevents people from truly embracing the increasingly personalized benefits AI can offer to their daily lives.” (Sharma, 2017)


In all reality, Sophia is more art piece than AI. She represents and promotes a sentiment of distant curiosity and uninformed intimacy the public has begun to form with science, but specifically, with AI.  “AI helps us save lives, streamline information, and guide and assist our decisions in various ways.” (Sharma, 2017)


Once again, for many, the name “artificial intelligence” does not help with accurate appreciations either. It is not so much about creating a “new” intelligence separate from our own; AI helps us to reach and push our intelligence. AI does learn but not necessarily learn how to be human. AI gives us the ability to make better choices as humans by aiding in our decisions.


There is a question of ethics with self-learning technologies (how do we control for autonomy and accountability to be had when using AI in private and public sectors). However, Sophia is not helping these discussions. She is rather promoting gendering in a genderless technology, she is building hype on technology (social robotics) that does not necessarily assist people, and she is, ultimately, making some people even more unclear and uneasy about AI.

Despite all this, the amazingness that is AI is undeniable. AI is the next frontier to human knowledge. So, why not learn it today (artificial intelligence class) as well as learn the other skills and topics necessary to navigate an increasingly technology-driven world. (more thought-provoking classes).


The goal of the forthcoming generation should not be just to create near human intelligence but how we can use technology to aid and understand our own.


Computational Thinkers is the place to finally gain an understanding of the uncanny valley and its contents.