Hilary O'Connor

Vice-President Asia Pacific, Soul Machines - Auckland

Key Info

  • Bachelor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences
  • Software Engineering

If you were keen to get information during Covid-19, chances are you came across Bella the digital human. Her development was led by University of Waikato graduate Hilary O’Connor from Soul Machines to give New Zealanders timely and accurate critical information related to the pandemic, 24/7.

Hilary is Vice-President Asia Pacific at New Zealand-based Soul Machines, a world leader in creating human operating systems for artificial intelligence (AI). Bella is part of what’s termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is taking digital communication way past the chat-bot. AI is getting a real face.

Soul Machines is working with clients in fields as diverse as banking, health and medicine, automotive, and entertainment. Soon ‘Florence’, created by Soul Machines, will be joining the WHO team as an adviser to help people give up tobacco products, and to combat misinformation around Covid-19 and tobacco use.

Hilary travels the world to work with clients. “What we’re creating are digital humans who not only look real, but respond in the same ways humans do via their biologically inspired digital brains. They smile, they empathise. Our clients want their customers to meaningfully engage with these digital humans and to trust them,” she says.

Hilary’s got her dream job. And it’s a fun job.

“It was a revelation to me when I was in sixth form [year 12] that you could actually have a career in computer science. I’d been coding since I was four, thanks to my Dad running a computer club at Wellington Polytech, and even today I think in code from time to time. I have a very logical mind, but I thought I’d be an accountant or something like that.”

But then Hilary found out that the University of Waikato offered a four-year computer science degree, the only university at the time to do so, so she made the move north to Hamilton. She says the knowledge she gained through her university study and in her subsequent jobs, including lengthy stints at Microsoft and Google, have all helped place her at the forefront of AI.

“My degree taught me how to think and to reason and gave me a sound theoretical knowledge I could take to market. I made some good friends and excellent connections who I’m still in touch with. I also remember lots of late nights in the lab. I always did my best work rushing to meet a deadline.

“The joke is that in my second year at Waikato I switched from majoring in AI to software engineering, because AI at the time was all logic and psychology, it seemed fanciful. Imagine if I’d had a crystal ball back then …”

What’s next for AI? “We talk about this at work,” she says. “I’m personally not convinced there will ever be AI with its own consciousness, at least in our lifetime, but the next big steps will be in artificial general intelligence and  natural language generation. Hollywood makes AI seem more advanced than it really is.”

University helped Hilary to kick-start a great career and in turn she encourages young men and women she meets with an interest in computer science and its related fields to make the leap, to take up study and chase a career. “I can tell people what’s possible and I’m only too happy to mentor them if asked,” she says.

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