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VIRTUAL STUDENT ATTENDS CLASS IN PERSON

VIRTUAL STUDENT ATTENDS CLASS IN PERSON
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By Charles F Moreira, Editor

Whilst students in Malaysia and many other parts of the world are forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to attend class virtually due to class attendance being suspended, Hua Zhibing, a virtual student announced that she will begin studying at the computer laboratory at Tsinghua University, the Global Times of 4 June 2021 reported.

The pony tailed Hua Zhibing carrying a red backpack made the announcement earlier at the 2021 Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence (BAAI) Conference on 1 June 2021. Hua Zhibing met her fans on 3 June 2021 as she opened an account on China’s Sina Weibo text messaging platform. In her first post on the site, Hua Zhibing greeted Chinese netizens and informed them that she would begin studying at the computer lab at Tsinghua University and this attracted close to 2,000 followers on Weibo within nine hours.

“I’ve been addicted to literature and art since I was born. The scientists not only gave me my appearance and my voice but also taught me to compose,” Hua Zhibing said, noting said the background music in the video was composed by her. If readers haven’t figured it out by now, Hua Zhibing is a humanoid robot – a realistic humanlooking and rather pretty female version of the android C3PO in the 1970s science fiction film Star Wars, let alone his squat and more robot-like companion R2D2.

According to the People’s Daily Online of 4 June 2021, Hua Zhibing was developed by a joint team consisting of the BAAI, Zhipu.AI, and AI company XiaoIce and on 1 June 2021, she had enrolled at the Department of Computer Science and Technology at Tsinghua University as a student of Tang Jie, Deputy Dean of Academic Affairs at the academy and a Tsinghua University professor.

Hua Zhibing is powered by the second generation of Wudao, China’s largest pre-trained artificial intelligence (AI) model, which can process 1.75 trillion parameters, according to Tang, who said that she can continuously learn and is now capable of composing poems, draw pictures and will be able to code in the future. Her processing capacity breaking the record of 1.6 trillion parameters previously held by Google’s Switch Transformer AI language model.

According to the Global Times, Hua Zhibing is based on the latest version of a China-developed deep learning model, Wudao 2.0, which literally means “understanding of natural laws”. According to Tang, what makes Hua Zhibing different from ordinary virtual characters is that she has some reasoning ability and emotional interaction. Peng Shuang, another member of the research team and also co-founder and vice president of XiaoIce, said that apart from learning, she hoped that the virtual girl will have a higher emotional quotient (EQ) and be able to communicate like a human.

Peng also explained that the Hua Zhibing will also be able to play a role in more scenarios, such as news coverage and popularisation of knowledge. According to Global Times, developers said at the BAAI forum that they had high expectations for Hua Zhibing, hoping that she can keep learning, exploring and cultivating the abilities of creativity and communication in the future, and that she might also be employed after graduating from the university.

Hua Zhibing’s début on Weibo soon became a hot topic, with some members expressing amazement at how China has advanced in the field of artificial intelligence. Some also said that they had been wondering whether scientists would create a humanoid robot like Hua Zhibing, rather than a virtual face and voice.

Some joked that if more robots like Hua Zhibing, which can learn and work, are made in the future, population decline would not be a problem in the world.

An afterthought

Hmmm! If more humanoid robots like Hua Zhibing are made, Malaysian families may not need to hire foreign maids to cook, clean and take care of elderly relations but simply buy a maid or two which will work for them 24-hours, seven days a week without complaint. Also, if scientists and engineers make robust male versions of Hua Zhibing, property developers, construction companies and factories could replace migrant labour with them, though their maintenance costs might be another problem.

This brings to mind the novel The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, published in September 1972, and its film adaptations in 1975 and 2004.

In the 1975 film adaptation which I watched on TV, set in Stepford, a fictional town in Fairfax County, Connecticut, USA, one-by-one, the wives, some of whom were feminist activists and very successful professionals, were curiously turning into fawning, submissive and impossibly beautiful wives.

The protagonist, Joanna Eberhart (played by Katherine Ross), a talented photographer had newly arrived from New York City with her husband and children, eager to start a new life in Stepford. However as time goes on, she becomes increasingly disturbed by the submissive wives of Stepford who seem to lack free will, especially when she sees her once independent-minded friends, fellow new arrivals to Stepford, turn into mindless, docile housewives following a romantic weekend. However, her husband, who seems to be spending more and more time at meetings of the local men’s association, mocks her fears.

As the story progresses, Joanna becomes convinced that the wives of Stepford are being poisoned or brainwashed into submission by the men’s club. She visits the library and researches the pasts of Stepford’s wives, and discovers that the leader of the men’s club is a former Disney engineer and others are artists and scientists, capable of creating lifelike robots.

Her friend Bobbie helps her investigate, going so far as to write to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to inquire about possible toxins in Stepford. However, to Joanna’s surprise and dismay, Bobbie unexpectedly becomes a docile housewife with no interest in her previous activities.

Towards the end of the film, the rather free-spirited Joanna enters a room and meets an exact humanoid robot look-alike of her, elegantly dressed, which strangles her to death. The film, the message of which is a protest of sorts against male domination, ends with the clone ofJoanna, having given up her career as a photographer, gliding gracefully through a supermarket with a trolley, whilst nodding politely to other Stepford wives.

In this age of gender equality, who is to say that today’s scientists and engineers won’t also create realistic-looking, humanoid robot “Stepford Husbands” with features and characteristics made to order by wives, and husbands who will remain young-looking forever.

What began as a fictional novel 49 years ago is reality today, though there need not be the negative, alarmist connotations portrayed in the novel Stepford Wives, as well as its film adaptations. Perhaps we could call them “Tsinghua Wives, Husbands, Maids, Construction Workers, Waiters” and so forth.

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