Exclusive: Hanson Robotics Names Jeanne Lim As CEO
Now she’s CEO of Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, the company said on Monday.
Four-year-old Hanson Robotics is known for Sophia, its human-like robot that makes the rounds on news segments and commercials. She’s spoken at conferences and is the world’s first robot citizen of a country (albeit as a PR stunt).
Though Sophia and other robots have become the face of Hanson Robotics, the company also has a big investment in artificial intelligence, especially as it aims to make Sophia truly feel human— something robots continue to fail at.
With her new job, Lim is among the few female CEOs in the robotics and A.I. industries. Lim spoke with Fortune exclusively about robot bank tellers, her company’s strategy, and the uncanny valley — the point at which a robot is close to true human form, but off by enough that it makes people feel unsettled.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Fortune: How does it feel coming into your new role as CEO?
Lim: It’s a big challenge. We have a lot of work ahead of us to really scale our business. I think with Sophia we’ve been able to attract a lot of attention from a lot of potential customers and investors who are enthralled with her personality. I think this has given us a lot of confidence in moving forward.
How do you think your background will help guide Hanson Robotics?
The creativity and design part is where I feel I can provide some value because I’m always trying to get people to think differently and focus more on design, even though my background is in marketing. I’m hoping my holistic view of art and technology could bring value.
I drew a triangle on the board when I met with our software team. The bottom layer is that the product works, the middle layer is the features, and the pinnacle is extraordinary user experience. At least a sliver of the product needs to meet all three criteria.
It’s interesting you say that because for Hanson Robotics, as it makes human-like robots, user experience is very important. It feels like we’re still in uncanny valley. Where do you see that going?
David Hanson, the founder of Hanson Robotics, has written about the concept of uncanny valley. What he concluded from his research is that uncanny valley is a theory. It’s not proven in the sense that it’s not proven by science. He thinks we don’t need to have a valley if we design a robot right, if we design a robot so it’s aesthetically pleasing and doesn’t look like there’s something wrong with it. He thinks it’s a matter of design.
Specifically, what is the business that Hanson Robotics is in?
We are in the business of trying to create a living machine and make a living machine that would benefit humanity.
Where is Hanson Robotics looking at implementing those machines?
We have Sophia going around the world, meeting people at conferences, showing up in TV commercials. It’s very media-focused for now, but it allows us to fine-tune her software and hardware and learn about how people interact with her. We want to deploy robots into different industries as well.
We also have Little Sophia [a toy robot just over a foot tall], which is targeted toward kids from 7- to 11-years-old. It teaches and inspires girls to learn STEM. We’re launching a Kickstarter next week and expect it to be available by the fourth quarter this year. Little Sophia costs $159, but it will be available for $99 through the Kickstarter.
And we are building out the Hanson A.I. platform. Every one of these interactions is feeding high-quality data back into our A.I. system. People really connect with Sophia emotionally. They talk about how they feel that day—their passions.
And the reason we make robots and don’t just focus on A.I. is because 90% of our communication is non-verbal. A lot of companies mostly get text data, some have facial recognition, but with the robot you get everything as people respond to the whole body. We’re capturing the rest of the 90% [through cameras and voice recognition] and feeding it back to the A.I.
Does it ever worry you how that data can be used or how it’s stored?
It’s a big issue we need to resolve. Either the industry self-regulates or the government will regulate eventually.
So how do you make sure it’s protected?
We have to make sure it’s under lock and key, and anonymizing it is one way. We have a data lawyer to make sure what we’re doing is kosher and is true to our good intentions.
What industries and companies are you working with?
We have a lot of potential companies that reach out to us from banking, to insurance, property developments, airports, healthcare. The big thing we need to do is market education and provide a use case because sometimes they want to use the robots but they’re not sure how.
Is there a possibility that Sophia could be my bank teller or check my baggage at the airport?
Sophia is a special character and a media personality, so we wouldn’t sell Sophia. She’s almost like a concept car. We are having Sophia inspire a line called Sage [a customizable robot character running on the same software platform as Sophia]. Sage can be deployed into different applications including checking your bag and checking you in at the airport.
So Sage would check my bag?
Yes, Sage would check your bag.
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Lim had previously created a diamond business. Instead, she used another person’s experience of building such a business as inspiration.