The Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UTD hosted a keynote speaking event, “Bringing Robots to Life with Dr. David Hanson” on April 10. The event featured UTD alumni David Hanson, a roboticist and founder of Hanson Robotics. Hanson is the creator of various different animated robots, with his most renowned robot being Sophia the Android. The Mercury sat down with Hanson to talk about his experience researching at UTD and his thoughts about the impact of robots in the future.

Why did you choose to study at UTD?

I chose UTD because I was looking for a program that would afford me the flexibility to do these really unorthodox things. I wanted to pursue this kind of approach to robotics spanning many disciplines. I was from Dallas, visiting my family and preparing applications for graduate school, and I heard about this new Interactive Arts and Engineering program at UT Dallas, so I came in and met with the folks here and I knew of the number of researchers who are here and who are excellent heroes to me, and when I met with the founders of this arts and engineering program and described what I was doing, my background, it sounded like they would make this space to do whatever, it felt it was appropriate. And it was really that flexibility with why I chose this program, and the level of scholarship and experts here. Dennis Kratz and Andy Brancher opened many, many doors for me and were really good to me. Many professors made a huge difference. Tom Riccio collaborated with me in the sort of theatrics of the robotics, he’s a theatre professor and writer. I think I accomplished my goals better with the UTD program than anywhere else in the world. Now my goals were way beyond what their program was, so a lot of the things I was doing was extracurricular activities, the material science, the mechanical design – I wasn’t taking any courses in it, but I had to do it, wiring up and physically building the robots myself. I saw the school as kind of a way to just get the time and space to do what I wanted to do and also accumulate my degree, which can be useful.

I’ve seen your interviews and you seem to be a very fierce advocate for humans and robots developing relationships and being compassionate, but for our readers who don’t know about this, how do you believe that robots could facilitate benefits to humanity?

Well, automation benefits humanity in general because it makes everything more efficient. We wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t delivering some sort of value in that sense. It can allow us to get more done. With that, we have the power to do things, but we need to use those technologies wisely. You could just optimize create efficiencies for local benefit, but a system-wide problem. For example, if you use automation to massively increase quarterly profits to return to shareholders, meanwhile the workers are out of their jobs. Then suddenly, there’s no money flowing into the economy, people stop purchasing goods and the very companies that profited suddenly collapse. The entire economy collapses. This is the peril of the fourth industrial revolution. The problem there is not the automation, the problem is the misuse of the automation. If we are only using automation for the purpose of maximizing the returns paid to shareholders, then we’re missing the bigger opportunity, and it’s not even serving the shareholders because it causes a massive economic collapse.

What do you recommend to students who want to pursue innovation and work in the field of robotics?

Figure drawing. I would suggest a wide spanning set of creative skills because creativity is really important. On the other hand, you could focus on any one of these disciplines. What students should study if they’re interested in robotics is figure drawing, math, philosophy, engineering, brain sciences, creative writing. In fact, even if you have a focus and a background in any one of these areas, you could contribute into the world of robotics and artificial intelligence. Then, ultimately the key skill beyond all this is dreaming and creativity, but it’s not just to have pure creativity, it’s to have the audacity to say “What if?” and to place your imagination beyond the boundaries of what is known into the realm of what may be, and even if it’s not proven, even if it’s speculative, we should create a culture where we’re comfortable going into the domain of the unknown because everything that is known started out as unknown. So even if you’re focused on once single discipline, being comfortable with stretching the boundaries of that discipline is the foundation of the vitality, the living heart of whatever the discipline is.

What is your response to skeptics who criticize robots as being “scripted” or “not alive,” and believe they will cause economic downfalls?

Well, our robots, we run them in many different ways, so Sophia can have an autonomous conversation and generate her own replies, and it’s merely a myth that everything that she says is scripted. It’s a misconception, and there’s also nothing wrong to parts of robots being scripted, so Siri, Cortana, IBM Watson, even Facebook’s AI will be from content written by people. That doesn’t mean they’re a scam, though, that their AI is often derived from human writings in the same way that humans will recite human writings. A journalist will have pre-prepared questions like you, you’re operating off of a script, but that doesn’t mean that your brain is scripted. Likewise, Sophia may have on certain things we’ll write for her for a dramatic narrative or to be on a talk show, the person who is interacting with her might be reading a script and she might be reading a script but she’ll always have somethings that she’ll say unscripted. With that said, she is not conscious with the way a human is conscious, and no AI is fully intelligent the way a human is intelligent, and so we have a long way to go before AI matches the full spectrum of human intelligence. So we have to examine the potential consequences and by making robots that make us question those consequences, then we could pursue the potential benefit instead of the potential negative outcome. My hope is that Sophia will help to provoke the conversation so that we can lean towards a more beneficial outcome.

Currently, where do your robots reside? Are they being actively studied and stored in a separate place? Are they interacting with other people now?

All over the world. I’ve got a robot at the University of Cambridge, one at the University of Pisa, robots that have been developed in Texas near the UTD campus, some at the National Taiwan University, two of the University of Bristol. Some of them are still active and some of them have been decommissioned. The robots at the University of Bristol made in 2004 and 2006 are still operational. I made those when I was a student at UTD and they’re still running and serving research, operating in California and in Hong Kong, more in Hong Kong than in anywhere else right now.