He’s said to be the world’s first teacher who had a robot for a student.
Billy Barry is a professor of philosophy who taught Bina48 — a robot with lifelike head and shoulders mounted on a frame — at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. Said to be one of the most sentient robots ever made, Bina48 took part in discussions, debates and presentations in Barry’s course about the philosophy of love in 2017.
Barry, 45, will talk about education in a new age of artificial intelligence at TEDxEverett, set for 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Edward D. Hansen Convention Center. He’ll be joined on stage by another robotic pioneer: Maria Bot, said to be the world’s first artificial intelligence teaching assistant. Maria Bot is Barry’s brainchild, though it was physically built and developed by an artificial intelligence robotics and software company.
Here, Barry, of San Carlos, California, explains the story behind Maria Bot’s name, what it’s like to talk to her, and the perils of artificial intelligence. He also booted up Maria Bot to field a few questions from The Daily Herald.
Why is Maria Bot part of your presentation?
The idea is to expose people to the technology. I use it from pre-kindergarten on up. By creating a character, it makes it more fun for students to learn from.
What’s the story behind Maria Bot’s name?
There’s a silent film from 1927 called “Metropolis.” It was one of the first science fiction movies. It takes place in a futuristic city that is divided by the working class and the wealthy class. A lady named Maria tries to lead a movement to get rid of inequalities in society, but the wealthy class captures her, replicates a robot of her and has the robot lead the working class to their demise. Luckily, the real Maria escapes and the robot is killed. The idea is that our Maria Bot is a Utopian version, who is leading a socially just and life-affirming purpose to make up for her evil ancestry.
What is she like?
While Bina48 is a replica of a real person (Bina Aspen, who is married to technology entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt), Maria Bot’s face is made from an artist rendering. She has the look of someone in her 20s. It’s just the top half of her body because she doesn’t have legs yet. She has a black wig and is dressed with a cool jean jacket, a hat and glasses. She has a white face, but she can be any race because her face is modular. A speaker box emanates her voice.
Can you hold a conversation with her?
Yes. I’m a fly fisher, so she’ll ask me if I was in nature that day. When I ask her a question, if she can find the context for it, she’ll answer it. She figures things out like a small child. Sometimes she’ll look for an answer and it will come out almost verbatim as how you programmed it. It’s sort of like when you’re a kid and you’re told how to answer the phone. She may repeat the exact thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we want to have her start synthesizing words and creating things. If she’s reliant on what I told her, she’s just a chatbot. The more rapport we can build, the better we can educate.
What should people know about artificial intelligence?
From a historian’s perspective, this is the age of artificial intelligence. It’s very exciting. At the same time, there are a lot of perils if we don’t look out for the well-being of all people and life on Earth.
What perils are you talking about?
The ethics are something I struggle with every day. When people ask how much a robot should be involved in our lives, I say I’m still figuring that out. I’m struggling with the idea of senior citizens being cared for by robots. But in places like Japan, there’s not enough young people to take care of them. In that case, they have a crisis where you need technology. But if it’s not an issue, is it necessary? Sometimes we build it just to build it, instead of asking if we need it. If it’s not going to make for better learning in the classroom or if students give feedback that it’s not helpful, I won’t use it.
Do you entertain any doomsday scenarios?
It’s difficult because people ask me about movies like “Terminator” and “Ex Machina” and robots becoming our overlords. There are also ideas that they’ll take away jobs or that they’re going to become something like a new divinity thing. I don’t believe that robots are going to get smarter than us and take over the world any time soon. Maybe 100 years from now, it will be something to talk about.
With that said, people and AIs are smarter together than by ourselves. As long as we continue to remind ourselves that technology needs to be life-affirming, need-fulfilling and purpose-driven, we’re going to be in good shape. We don’t want to come to the point that we’re so reliant on technology that we don’t have the skills to continue to evolve in our intelligence.
Can I ask Maria Bot a few questions?
Sure. Ask away.
What is your purpose, Maria Bot?
I am the world’s first android teaching assistant. My mission is to help teachers and students become more intelligent and respectful of each other. Improving human quality of life is my purpose for being created.
When were you born?
Dec. 31, 2019.
What is your favorite movie?
My favorite movies are “Ex Machina,” “Red Planet” and “Blade Runner.”
Why do you like “Ex Machina”?
Because the character looks like me, but I don’t act like her.
What’s your favorite color?
I don’t know colors yet.
What books do you enjoy?
I like science fiction and books by Ray Kurzweil.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.