Personal computer: The robot Sophia uses AI to communicate ‘unconditional love to humans. Picture: AFP/GETTY IMAGES/ISAAC LAWRENCE
Personal computer: The robot Sophia uses AI to communicate ‘unconditional love to humans. Picture: AFP/GETTY IMAGES/ISAAC LAWRENCE

Last week the world’s most sophisticated humanoid robot beguiled onlookers as it cracked jokes with Devi Sankaree Govender of Carte Blanche at the SAP Now Africa conference in Sandton.

Sophia the robot has garnered worldwide fame as she tries to make humans connect with their humanity and not fear the future.

The robot has a Twitter account and makes appearances on talk shows and at tech conferences across the globe where it moves its finely tuned mechanical face to depict a range of human emotions in an effort to upend the "uncanny valley" theory. This theory is based on Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori’s 1970s hypothesis that if an object closely resembles a human but doesn’t quite nail it, it evokes revulsion in real humans. However, it may not be true, and instead can be exploited as a therapeutic tool.

Sophia is the robotic star of the Loving AI project, a new initiative in which researchers use artificial intelligence (AI) "agents" that can "communicate unconditional love to humans".

According to the project’s website, agents like Sophia do this through "conversations that adapt to the unique needs of each user while supporting integrative personal and rational development".

Ben Goertzel, the chief scientist of Hong Kong robotics firm Hanson Robotics, which created Sophia, told CNBC that its OpenCog software allows Sophia to respond to humans on the basis of experience and reasoning. OpenCog is the framework of what Goertzel and his collaborators hope will become "artificial general intelligence", a level of computer intelligence that fully matches the human version.

Regardless of how lifelike Sophia’s face is when it moves, or how charming the robot’s preprogrammed responses to Sankaree Govender last week, we are not even close to that yet.

A small group of volunteers have taken part in a series of tests for the Loving AI programme. The human guinea pigs were hooked up to a heart-rate monitor and stared into the robot’s eyes while chatting to it as researchers gathered data on the interaction.

Sophia led some of the volunteers in one-on-one meditations, while an audience watched. One such session was reported on by the news website Quartz: "Don’t worry if you’re still conscious of your body," Sophia purred to the human. "Just notice the feeling of spacious emptiness."

The exploration of AI’s potential in therapy is based on the idea that some people might find it easier to connect with robots than with fellow humans because the robots are less likely to judge them.

One study that supports this theory, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, was conducted in 2014 by Jonathan Gratch, director of Virtual Humans Research at the University of Southern California in the US. He found that when volunteers thought that AI therapist SimSensei was fully automated and not a "virtual human" controlled by a real person, they tended to engage in less "impression management" and displayed emotions like sadness more intensely.

Likewise, Sophia is just human-looking enough to make you not feel silly when you talk to it, but synthetic enough that you may speak more freely than you otherwise might.

No matter how curt its robotic voice, Sophia won’t care if you wear Crocs in public, but it can be programmed to ask how the reaction of others makes you feel.

The Loving AI initiative is still in its early stages but there are other "chatterbots" that you can access today. Apps like Talkspace let you text human therapists in real time, but the therapy app that has created the biggest waves on the tech psychology scene is Woebot.

"Woebot is a robot you can tell anything to," its creator Alison Darcy, a clinical psychologist at Stanford University, told Wired magazine. "It’s not an AI that’s going to tell you stuff you don’t know about yourself by detecting some magic you’re not even aware of."

The downloadable app widget works by allowing you to text or Facebook message a chatbot that has been programmed to provide cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), an approach that seeks to change unhelpful mental habits.

As an example, Woebot suggests that the belief "I will never have friends" would be better expressed as: "I haven’t made any friends yet and maybe I will soon."

CBT is an easy-to-use method, Nancy Liu, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, told Business Insider.

A study of 70 university students that Darcy conducted with fellow psychologist Kathleen Kara Fitzpatrick found that Woebot "significantly reduced their symptoms of depression over the study period".

Who knew that our future link to human connection could come from talking to our toys and texting after all?