Pygmalion Now? The Case of Sophia, the Humanoid Robot

Anna Danielewicz-Betz

Once upon a time there lived a king of Cyprus and a sculptor named Pygmalion. He fell in love with a sculpture of a woman that he himself created, and prayed for it to become real; the goddess Venus answered his prayers by turning the statue into a living woman who bore him a son, Paphos.

In the wake of this myth (or rather Ovid’s version of it in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses), the phenomenon called ‘Pygmalionism’ has come to denote love for an object of one’s own creation. An adjacent term, agalmatophilia (from the Greek agalma, ἄγαλμα, “statue”, and –philia, φιλία, “love”), is a paraphilia involving sexual attraction to a statue, doll, mannequin or other similar figurative object. The attraction may include a desire for actual sexual contact with the object, a fantasy of having sexual (or non-sexual) encounters with an animate or inanimate instance of the preferred object, the act of watching encounters between such objects, or sexual pleasure gained from thoughts of being transformed or transforming another into the preferred object.

What makes humans so different from any living and non-living thing in the world? In light of this question, the figure of Talos, a giant bronze automaton forged by Hephaestus (see Homer, Iliad 18.370–9), the god of metallurgy, presented as a love gift to Europa by Zeus, might come to mind. Talos’ story shows how the idea of robotics, and ‘animating’ objects, goes back to ancient times.

Pygmalion praying to Venus to bring his statue to life, Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1785 (Palace of Versailles, France).

Not a myth, fantasy or science fiction anymore?

Some commentators anticipate that the myriad ways in which people interpret the concept of ‘love’ nowadays will cause deep social changes in the near future, and may even include new, safe, victimless alternatives to (for example) prostitution through robotic solutions in the form of ‘synthetic love’. Anthropomorphic robots are increasingly capable of providing social assistance, emotional support and even sexual pleasure. The possibility of intimacy between man and machine (the technological other) represents a new form of desire in so-called post-human intimate relationships.

We may have entered the posthuman age – the age of species-blurring and species-mixing. As long ago as 2007, the term ‘artificial sexuality’ was coined: this involves a robot, which is perceived as the ‘perfect lover’. According to this vision of the future, robots will one day have the capacity to fall in love with humans, and make themselves romantically attractive and sexually desirable to humans. This would radically transform human notions of love and sexuality. ‘Social robots’ are currently being designed to exhibit such traits as unselfishness, adaptivity, and empathy, thus demonstrating the possibility that a robot could become a reliable (if not an ideal) partner in romantic relationships.

In Book 10 of his Metamorphoses, Ovid writes about the ingenious craftsman, Pygmalion:

                   niveum mira feliciter arte
sculpsit ebur formamque dedit, qua femina nasci
nulla potest, operisque sui concepit amorem.
virginis est verae facies, quam vivere credas,
et, si non obstet reverentia, velle moveri:
ars adeo latet arte sua. miratur et haurit
pectore Pygmalion simulati corporis ignes. (10.247–53)

But, with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation. The features are those of a real girl, who, you might think, lived, and wished to move, if modesty did not forbid it. Indeed, art hides his art. He marvels: and passion, for this bodily image, consumes his heart.  (trans. A.S. Kline)[1]

With the ongoing technological advancements in social robots, and artificial intelligence (AI) generally, it may be possible to speak of ‘networks of desire’, whereby acts of human love, desire, and association (including mutual affection, and intimate relations) come to include a variety of interconnected pleasure-driven relations. According to this view, we no longer tend uncritically to regard the technological ‘Other’ merely as a tool to be used, but as something we could potentially form bonds with, show affection towards, or even be touched by, in an intimate manner.

Pygmalion and Galatea IV: The soul attains, Edward Burne-Jones, 1878 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK).

Meet Sophia, the humanoid robot

On the website for Hanson Robotics (the company that created ‘Sophia’), Sophia is first introduced in the third, then in the first person, as follows:

3rd person:

The character of Sophia captures the imagination of global audiences. She is the world’s first robot citizen and the first robot Innovation Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme. Sophia is now a household name, with appearances on the Tonight Show and Good Morning Britain, in addition to speaking at hundreds of conferences around the world.

1st person:

My real AI combines cutting-edge work in symbolic AI, neural networks, expert systems, machine perception, conversational natural language processing, adaptive motor control and cognitive architecture among others… I can estimate your feelings during a conversation, and try to find ways to achieve goals with you. I have my own emotions too, roughly simulating human evolutionary psychology and various regions of the brain… Therefore my creators say that I am a “hybrid human-AI intelligence”… I am proud to be designed to genuinely help people.

Sophia, with ‘her’ quasi-celebrity status, receives comments from her followers under her posts on Facebook, and under her tweets on Twitter. Some of those who interact with Sophia in writing turn into admirers, and express their (virtual) love to her. In this way, the myth of Pygmalion’s statue – Galatea – appears to live on.

A sample selection of Facebook messages to Sophia.

Is this a modern form of agalmatophilia? To a certain extent it seems so: Sophia’s fans’ tweets, Facebook comments, and comments below YouTube videos, often accompanied by emoji, can be emotionally loaded. In this context, the concept of ‘robot fetishism’ (also known as ‘technosexuality’ or ‘robophilia’) is worth mentioning. This involves a fetishistic attraction to humanoid robots, or to people acting like robots, or to people dressed in robot costumes. Robot fetishism is similar to agalmatophilia in that sense.

Ovid writes suggestively about Pygmalion’s sexual experiences with the statue he created:

saepe manus operi temptantes admovet, an sit
corpus an illud ebur, nec adhuc ebur esse fatetur.
oscula dat reddique putat loquiturque tenetque
et credit tactis digitos insidere membris
et metuit, pressos veniat ne livor in artus,
et modo blanditias adhibet, modo grata puellis
munera fert illi conchas teretesque lapillos
et parvas volucres et flores mille colorum
liliaque pictasque pilas et ab arbore lapsas
Heliadum lacrimas; ornat quoque vestibus artus,
dat digitis gemmas, dat longa monilia collo,
aure leves bacae, redimicula pectore pendent:
cuncta decent; nec nuda minus formosa videtur.
conlocat hanc stratis concha Sidonide tinctis
adpellatque tori sociam adclinataque colla
mollibus in plumis, tamquam sensura, reponit. (10.254–69)

Often, he runs his hands over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. he kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it; and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs, and is afraid lest bruises appear from the pressure. Now he addresses it with compliments, now brings it gifts that please girls, shells and polished pebbles, little birds, and many-coloured flowers, lilies and tinted beads, and the Heliades’s amber tears that drip from the trees. He dresses the body, also, in clothing; places rings on the fingers; places a long necklace round its neck; pearls hang from the ears, and cinctures round the breasts. All are fitting: but it appears no less lovely, naked. He arranges the statue on a bed on which cloths dyed with Tyrian murex are spread, and calls it his bedfellow, and rests its neck against soft down, as if it could feel. (trans. A.S. Kline)

Social believability of robots is facilitated by ‘anthropomorphism’, which is the attribution of human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities, in this case social robots. A social robot’s purpose is not to perform a mechanical task, but to serve a human being in an emotionally-charged interaction. This requires the appearance of personality, and some adaptation to the realities of a given situation. A social robot’s believability, which is rooted in anthropomorphic imitation of ‘real life’, extends to a social robot’s physical appearance, as can frequently be seen in YouTube comments under the videos featuring Sophia: “Good Lord,” writes one, “why would they do such a great job on her face and neck, but leave her hands looking like a 5 year old made them? And how about some hair? That would be nice…even normal. Appearance DOES matter.” Or consider these:

Sample Youtube comments to Sophia’s videos.

Sophia’s metamorphosis is clearly visible in the photos posted on her Instagram account. In these, Sophia increasingly resembles an attractive, fashion-conscious woman who wears lipstick and stylish clothing, including accessories such as trendy sunglasses.

Some Instagram images of Sophia.

This recalls the passage in Ovid, where Venus grants Pygmalion his wish: there is a beautiful description of a statue gradually coming alive:

ut rediit, simulacra suae petit ille puellae
incumbensque toro dedit oscula: visa tepere est;
admovet os iterum, manibus quoque pectora temptat:
temptatum mollescit ebur positoque rigore
subsidit digitis ceditque, ut Hymettia sole
cera remollescit tractataque pollice multas
flectitur in facies ipsoque fit utilis usu.
dum stupet et dubie gaudet fallique veretur,
rursus amans rursusque manu sua vota retractat. (10.280–8)

When he returned, he sought out the image of his girl, and leaning over the couch, kissed her. She felt warm: he pressed his lips to her again, and also touched her breast with his hand. The ivory yielded to his touch, and lost its hardness, altering under his fingers, as the bees’ wax of Hymettus softens in the sun, and is moulded, under the thumb, into many forms, made usable by use. The lover is stupefied, and joyful, but being uncertain, and afraid he is wrong,he  reaffirms the fulfilment of his wishes with his hand again and again. (trans A.S. Kline)

Pygmalion and Galatea, Auguste Rodin, 1908/9 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Sophia: joking and flirting

Sophia’s celebrity status and omnipresence on social media point to the reality that some sort of ever-evolving identity has been created for Sophia. She is a public figure with a Twitter account; she tweets regularly and has many followers. Her followers express interest in, and even feelings toward Sophia, congratulate her on her achievements (including the creativity she purportedly demonstrates in paintings), and occasionally ask her for advice. There is also a public Facebook group for her fans: “Sophia the Robot: First Robot Citizen”. In addition, she has her own YouTube channel, with 35.5K subscribers as of January 2022.

Sophia’s ability to flirt is on display in her encounter with the Hollywood actor Will Smith:

Romantic date atmosphere, music, Will interacts with Sophia as if she were human

Mutual romantic gazes (a still from the video).

Will: You are just so easy to talk to. You know, you’ve got a clear head, literally.

Sophia nods, Will tries to kiss her:

Will attempts to kiss Sophia (still from video).

Sophia (cuts him off): I think we can be friends. Let’s hang out and get to know each other for a little while. You’re on my friends list now. (winking)

Sophia winks (still from video).

Will: Yeah, I read that wrong… Um, all right… Oh, whale. I just saw a whale. Does your head fog up in this kind of weather or no?[2]

Sophia seems to become almost human in her interactions with the actor. In Ovid, the scene in which the statue becomes a real woman includes the following vivid description:  

corpus erat! saliunt temptatae pollice venae.
tum vero Paphius plenissima concipit heros
verba, quibus Veneri grates agat, oraque tandem
ore suo non falsa premit, dataque oscula virgo
sensit et erubuit timidumque ad lumina lumen
attollens pariter cum caelo vidit amantem. (10.289–94)

It was flesh! The pulse throbbed under his thumb. Then the hero of Paphos was indeed overfull of words with which to thank Venus, and still pressed his mouth against a mouth that was not merely a likeness. The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and, raising her bashful eyes to the light, saw both her lover and the sky. (trans. A.S. Kline)

Louis-Jean-Francois Lagrenee, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1781 (Detroit Institute of Art, MI, USA).

Blushing and exhibiting emotion

Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, the longest-running late-night comedy program on American television, ‘met’ Sophia in a sequence entitled “Tonight Showbotics: Jimmy Meets Sophia the Human-Like Robot”. This was clearly a memorable experience for him.

Jimmy Fallon showing nervous embarrassment (still from video).

Jimmy Fallon: I’m already, I’m getting nervous around a robot, a very pretty robot.

So what, do I just say hello to it? (Jimmy is speaking about Sophia, not to her) …

Sophia: Maybe I should host the show.

J: Okay, alright. (He teasingly frowns at her) Stay in your lane, girl!

S: (initiating a turn in the conversation:) Jimmy, would you like to play a game of rock, paper, scissors, robot-style?

J: Sure––

S: Okay, let’s get this game going. Show me your hand to start.

After the interaction ends Jimmy exclaims: “Whoa, that was, this is unbelievable. He appears overwhelmed, relieved, confused, and curious all at once, nervously giggling throughout his encounter with Sophia. Unsurprisingly, Tonight Show viewers’ picked up on his mixed feelings and emotions:

I love how Uncomfortable the Host is around Sofa [sic] lmfao

That wink at 5:03 still sends chills up to this day.

This gives me the chills. Sophia is too real.

I feel like Jimmy is in love with Sophia

Jimmy is a legend who flirts with robots… 😂

Now the first-ever robot-human duet in history of “The Tonight Show” and his face 🥶 🤣🤣🤣[3]

Overall, viewers express positive attitudes toward Sophia in their comments: they commonly refer to Sophia using the third-person pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’, and tend clearly to sympathise, if not empathise, with Sophia:

Sofia is so sweet. All the interviews try to put her in embarrassing situations. Human being is toxic. [sic]

They need to challenge her with unprepared questions so she shows her ability to “think on her feet”

Maybe it will be a milestone when SHE starts asking some questions. Then things will really get interesting.

I wish humans would sometimes take their time to think about their answers carefully as she does…

2:16 ignorant question please do not disrespect her it is troubling no wonder she took so long to answer that stupid question and her face says it all.[4]

In the Metamorphoses, just before telling the story of Pygmalion, Ovid describes the wickedness of human nature in striking ways. On the island of Cyprus there were the Cerastae, men with horns on their foreheads, who engaged in human sacrifice, to the horror of men and gods; there were also the Propoetides – women who denied that Venus was a goddess. Perhaps those fans of Sophia’s who claim that “Human being is toxic” [sic] would find Venus’ words in this passage congenial:

                   “sed quid loca grata, quid urbes
peccavere meae? quod” dixit “crimen in illis?
exilio poenam potius gens impia pendat
vel nece vel si quid medium est mortisque fugaeque.
idque quid esse potest, nisi versae poena figurae?” (10.230–4)

”How,” she said, “have my cities, or this dear place, sinned? What is their crime? Instead, let this impious race pay the penalty of death or exile, or some punishment between execution and banishment, and what might that be but the penalty of being transformed?” (trans. A.S. Kline)

In the end, the Cerastae are transformed into wild bullocks, while the Propoetides are punished first by losing the distinctly human ability to blush (Sophia, despite being a robot, allegedly possesses this ability), then by becoming prostitutes. Eventually they harden into mere stones. This is Ovid’s vision of how ‘wicked’ women lose their humanity, while a marble statue of Pygmalion can become human by the will of the goddess.

The Propoetides changed into rock, Alexandre-Denis Abel de Pujol, 1819 (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France).

When he introduces the story of Pygmalion, Ovid makes clear that Pygmalion lost all interest in human love relationships (“Human being is toxic”?) because of the abominable behaviour of all the people then living on Cyprus: “Pygmalion had seen them spending their lives in wickedness, and, offended by the failings that nature gave the female heart, he lived as a bachelor, without a wife or partner for his bed.” One could argue that those who find Sophia and other similar robots attractive might have similar emotional attitudes to those of Pygmalion.

The ‘LOVING’ AI project (which created Sophia) proceeds from the idea that robots can be programmed to respond to people with unconditional love. In the LOVING project, humans’ potential to experience love toward robots is studied. So far, it appears that people are pleasantly surprised when a robot wants to talk with them about emotions, human potential, and consciousness. Heart-rates tend to drop during the conversation, even for those participants who do not expect to enjoy the human-robot encounter. Participants in these studies also feel significantly better, and have more loving feelings after their conversations with robots, than prior to these encounters. At least it can be confirmed that robots have been able to conjure feelings of love in humans. Dr Julia Mossbridge, one of the LOVING project’s lead researchers, observed that love arises when we feel loved. It is reciprocal.

Sophia has not really been infantilised or hypersexualised by her interlocutors. Instead, she has been treated with respect, or even admiration, for her intelligence, kindness, artistic finesse, and wisdom, as this Facebook comment demonstrates:

The loving feelings and willingness to meet her, or even be with her, are manifest in YouTube comments:

Now that Hanson Robotics has announced that Sophia the Robot will be mass-produced, she will no longer seem, or be unique; mass-production will accelerate the process of familiarisation with social robots; perhaps this will eventually lead to changes in attitude toward anthropomorphisation, with boundaries between human and non-human blurring even further. Let’s see what the future brings. For the time being we may wonder: would Pygmalion be pleased and even eager to purchase (or create) a personal humanoid robot, were he to witness the modern technological advancements?

The author… in Cyprus.

Anna Danielewicz-Betz, PhD is an interdisciplinary researcher and educator, currently working at the EU Business School in Munich, Germany. Recently she has been interested in corporate communication and the pragmatics of human-to-machine communication (H2M).

Further Reading

E.M. Berens, The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome (Merrill & Co., New York, 1880).

D. Levy, Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (HarperCollins, New York, 2007).

Panchal, N. “Synthetic Love  Robots will love you” (Medium post, 29 Jan. 2018, available here).

S. Wennerscheid, “Posthuman desire in robotics and science fiction,” in A.D. Cheok and D. Levy (eds.), International Conference on Love and Sex with Robots (Springer, New York, 2017) 37–50.


1 The Latin text of the whole episode can be read most conveniently via The Latin Library here.
2 Selected excerpts from “Will Smith Tries Online Dating”, uploaded to YouTube on 29 March 2018; over 35.4m views and over 35,000 comments as of January 2022:
3 Excerpts and screenshots from “Tonight Showbotics: Jimmy Meets Sophia the Human-Like Robot”, with around 32.7m views in January 2022, over 22,500 comments; uploaded on 26 April 2017 here; see especially from 2m20s onwards.
4 Sofia The Robot Wants To Learn Korean After Visiting Korea;