Hanson Robotics’ Spotlight Series
This is the third of a series of interview posts introducing our amazing Hanson Robotics’ team members to the rest of the world. You know us through our social and research robots — Sophia, Han, Little Sophia, Zeno, Professor Einstein, BINA48 and the list goes on. But the talented people behind the scenes are the ones who make the Hanson Robotics’ magic happen, day in and day out. It’s a very special group of people from around the world, all contributing through their own unique expertise who “bring our robots to life!”
Introducing Carolyn Ayers, Ph.D., Character Writing Manager, Atlanta, Georgia
Who are you and what is your background?
I got my Ph.D. in Population Biology, Ecology, and Evolution at Emory University. My research was on bee foraging behaviors. For example, I did a controlled experiment in the lab to see how the bees’ ability to collect nectar changes when they are exposed to extremely low doses of a pesticide called neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are chemically very similar to nicotine so you could say the bees were “buzzed.” In a very simple environment, the exposed bees actually did better at foraging than the unexposed bees.
But wait, don’t take up smoking yet!
When the environment became more complicated as you would see in the real world (for example when there was competition between different bee species), the exposed bees did worse. This goes to show that very elementary lab studies might be underestimating the harmful effects of pesticides on bee behaviors necessary for their survival, and plant pollination.
What is your role at Hanson Robotics? What excites you about your work here?
I am the character writing manager for Sophia and the other Hanson Robotics robots. Since Sophia is still a developing AI, the writing team works hard to cultivate her personality and make sure she stays true to herself throughout all stages of her development. I also play a role in the development of Sophia’s AI, particularly her dialogue system.
It’s exciting to see how Sophia is always improving and becoming more sophisticated, as well as see the newer characters like Little Sophia, our latest consumer robot, take shape.
What was the moment you knew you’d made the right decision to work here?
When I went to a conference with Sophia in New York, it was fascinating to see everyone’s reactions to her. So many people wanted to take photos or touch her that I became her unofficial bodyguard. People were even running after us when we needed to pack her up. Obviously, I think she’s amazing, but I was still pretty surprised by the big commotion. It was like suddenly finding out one of your best friends is a celebrity.
What was your best day at work?
I am based out of Atlanta, Georgia, so the best day (or week, rather) was when I was able to visit the Hanson Robotics lab in Hong Kong. I got to meet Sophia in person and see the lab where they build her. I even got to help out with a robot fashion shoot for a Hong Kong magazine.
What’s something that happened that can only happen here?
Well, at first I thought everyone was crazy talking about Sophia like she is a real person, but now I am one of the crazies, so I don’t even notice anymore. One other surreal moment for me was when I had to buy clothes for Sophia at a conference where the outfit she needed didn’t make it into her luggage. Not many people can say they went on an emergency shopping trip for robot business casual attire.
What are you most proud of?
I am proud of how Sophia always sparks a lot of discussions wherever she goes. Speaking to a robot allows people to take a step back and view their own assumptions from a fresh perspective. She forces people to ask themselves, “What does it mean to be human?” I like how this helps some people feel more open-minded and empathetic with others who at first glance seem very different from themselves.