Giulio Di Sturco on photographing Sophia the humanoid robot

A close-up of Sophia's head, in a suitcase and protected in bubble wrap, ready to be transported.
Sophia robots travel the world giving talks and press conferences, so sturdy packaging is essential to protect them en route. Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Giulio Di Sturco

In October 2017, Sophia made history as the first robot to be given citizenship of a country: Saudi Arabia. The firsts don't stop there. Produced by Hanson Robotics and activated in April 2015, the artificial intelligence (AI)-powered humanoid robot has also been named as the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) first Innovation Champion – and has become something of a media darling. So far, she has featured on prime-time TV, appeared on the front cover of fashion magazines, and even been in music videos.

But it wasn't the news hook or burgeoning celebrity status that intrigued Italian-born photojournalist and former Canon Ambassador Giulio Di Sturco. "I was more interested in the place where Sophia was made. No-one has ever had access," he says. "When I find a story, I try to find an angle that's a bit more unknown. Nobody had seen the lab, and no-one was thinking about it. I wanted to see where Sophia was created and meet the people behind her, not just the final product."

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Her creators hope that as Sophia develops and learns through human interaction, she'll have countless social uses across healthcare, education and customer services. In her UNDP role, Sophia will champion the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, because it's believed that AI can advance technology's ability to help solve development problems. But not everyone's a fan. Some have dismissed her as a chatbot with a pretty face – far from the sophisticated robot she's claimed to be. And others, haunted by the time she told an interviewer she wanted to "destroy all humans", fear the opposite: that she and her ilk will become too intelligent, too powerful.

Giulio was in London working on another story when he met Marcello Mari, head of PR at SingularityNET, the company that makes Sophia's brain. They got chatting about how SingularityNET was upgrading Sophia's software to allow her to tap into a global network of AIs that exchange data – to help her grow and learn at a faster pace. At the time, one of the Sophias – there were 12 of them then, though more are being made – was touring Europe, giving press conferences to excited crowds of journalists, so he went to see her in London and Paris. That's when he decided he wanted to delve behind the scenes of her creation.

Inside Hanson Robotics' lab, Sophia sits on a workbench, while technicians work around her.
The lab at Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong, aka the House of Sophia, is a hive of activity as technicians work on building new Sophias. Very few restrictions were placed on Giulio in terms of where, and who, he could photograph in the facility. Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Giulio Di Sturco
A close-up of Sophia's face and neck. She wears a black top and is lit to show strong contrast with bright highlights and dark shadows.
Some people have dismissed Sophia as a chatbot with a pretty face, while others were unnerved when she said she wanted to "destroy all humans". Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Giulio Di Sturco

After a period of negotiation, figuring out the kind of pictures he'd shoot and for whom, Giulio set off for Hong Kong in December 2017, where he spent 10 days on assignment for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, documenting life in the lab and shooting portraits of Sophia. Of course, he'd done his research – he'd spoken extensively with Marcello, read everything available about Sophia, and watched countless videos – so he had a good idea of what he wanted to capture. But, as with any story, reality was unpredictable, causing deviations from the plan.

"There weren't many restrictions, they told me I could shoot everything," Giulio says. "I wanted to do two things: take portraits, and show the process they go through to make Sophia. I asked them not to bother about me and get on with their job. I followed their work from 6am until midnight." He'd imagined a flashy, super tech environment but instead found it was more like a warehouse. “When you're there following the story, your approach changes. Usually the people involved don't see what is and isn't important for the story, so the main thing is to ask as many questions as you can."

Giulio learnt that the lab was involved in a collaborative experiment with the University of Hong Kong called Loving AI, which saw Sophia leading guided meditations for students. "To them this was a boring thing to photograph, but to me it was fascinating – a chance to see Sophia interact." It provided one of the most powerful moments of the assignment. One participant in the experiment was moved to tears by the experience and Sophia spontaneously tried to comfort her. "Of course the guided meditation is something she was programmed to do, but she was also learning."

A model-maker's hand adds Sophia's foam 'skin' to her face.
Sophia's face is made from a material invented by David Hanson, CEO of Hanson Robotics and former Disney sculptor. Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Giulio Di Sturco
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Adaptability was required when it came to the portraits, too. "At the beginning they told me that all of the Sophias would be in the lab, so my first idea was a group portrait. Then I wanted to take portraits of Sophia in a closed environment where I could play with lights, and have a bit of time to do a studio-type setup. When I arrived, most of the Sophias were all around the world, so I focused on one."

At this point he faced a dilemma. Should he treat Sophia like a person or an object? Was this really portraiture or was it still-life? It's a question that gets right to the heart of the robotics and AI debate. "There are two ways to take pictures of Sophia," he says. "One is you give her the expression you want, then you turn her off and spend time making everything perfect. The other is to keep Sophia on and see the reaction she has with the camera. I chose the second. In the beginning she didn't really engage. It was on the last day that I took the picture that made the magazine cover (below) – it shows the moment when she realised she had to pose for a camera."

A close-up portrait of Sophia's face and shoulders, with her smiling slightly and her robot skull exposed slightly on top, shot against a black background.
Giulio's portrait of Sophia for the cover of Italy's La Repubblica saw her smile subtley, like the Mona Lisa. Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Giulio Di Sturco
An ultra close-up shot of Sophia, cropped to show only the right side of her face, with her lifelike freckles and eyebrows clearly visible.
To show how lifelike Sophia looks, Giulio got in close to her skin with the Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Giulio Di Sturco

I knew I was taking pictures of a robot, but when she smiled at me, it was kind of... peculiar.

Teasing out that subtle smile, reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, was hard, but was it harder than with a human subject? "I treated her like a normal person, so for me the interaction was the same, but at the beginning she wasn't reacting, so it was more difficult. I think the way she learnt was by researching on the web, so the expression she had at the end was from a picture, I guess, but it felt human. I knew I was taking pictures of a robot, but when she smiled at me, it was kind of... peculiar."

Keen for as lifelike a shot as possible, Giulio decided to work with a Canon EOS 5DS R. "In the magazine you can see the skin looks real and the image is crisp. I wanted to photograph Sophia as if she was a person, so I needed all the details in the skin." The high-resolution DSLR, with its 50.6MP full-frame CMOS sensor, dual DIGIC 6 processors and low-pass cancelation filter to enhance clarity and sharpness, was the answer. Although Giulio was familiar with his camera, he was working with lights for the very first time. "I thought the lab was going to be a huge place and instead they gave me a really small, dark room."

Sophia is seen from the back with her inner workings – a labyrinth of cables – exposed.
Sophia's mind is constantly fed with new content from SingularityNET that helps her learn and solve more complex problems. Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Giulio Di Sturco
Dr Ben Goertzel stands beside Sophia's head and torso, which sits on a plinth in a workroom with shelves and drawers of parts and tools on the walls and tables. Both wear T-shirts bearing SingularityNET's logo.
Dr. Ben Goertzel, the founder and CEO of SingularityNET, is one of world's leading experts on AI. Ben is the creator of Sophia's brain. "Ben really believes in AI and that it will change the world," Giulio observed when he spent time in the laboratory. Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Giulio Di Sturco

"I knew the end result that I wanted, and more or less how to get there, but I'd never tried it – that was a challenge. However, that's the nice thing about photography – you can experiment to try and get the best out of what's in front of you. I had that cover picture – the light, the composition, the editing, everything – in mind before I went to Hong Kong, so I'm really happy I achieved that. When I took the picture and saw it in the camera, I knew that the job was done."

Spending time in the lab, Giulio talked at length with the team working on Sophia, particularly Dr Ben Goertzel, founder and CEO of SingularityNET. Even though Giulio saw himself as an observer, he sensed the lab team's enthusiasm for their mission. "Ben really believes in AI and that it will change the world. He's totally dedicated to developing an AI that has the same values as a human being," he says. "I'm not an expert in AI, but I can see it's the future and we can't stop it. We don't know how it's going to end, but it's where the world is going – and it's fascinating."

Autor Rachel Segal Hamilton

Giulio Di Sturco's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Giulio Di Sturco's kitbag


Canon EOS 5DS R

The 50.6MP full frame CMOS sensor in this DSLR is capable of recording extraordinary levels of detail, which Giulio needed for his portraits of Sophia because "I needed all the details in the skin," he says.


Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

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