I had the pleasure of sitting down with Natalie Monbiot, Head of Business at HourOne.
Natalie is passionate about emerging media and technology and how it will shape the future of work and communication. She is currently Head of Business and a member of the founding team at HourOne, a startup pioneering AI characters based on real people, to scale human communication in the digital realm.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us how you got to where you are today?
I’d say I got here through an appetite for adventure and a series of happy accidents. Early on in my career I could never answer that cliched question “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” From a position of total inexperience and not knowing what the future held, it seemed like an impossible question.
For example, I could never have told you I’d end up living in New York City (via London, San Francisco and LA), helping to build HourOne, a pioneer in generative artificial intelligence… as it was a field that didn’t even remotely exist back then.
I met Oren Aharon, co-founder and CEO of HourOne on a phone call that I happened to crash (and I don’t do that often, I promise…) That was at the start of 2019 when the company was being founded… I would count that as one very random and happy accident!
What are the 3 things you wish you knew and why?
I quite honestly find this question as hard as the one about where I saw myself in 10 years! That’s because I’m generally very thankful not to have known about most of the things I then got to know. For a few reasons:
As someone with an adventurous mindset, knowing what was coming would have felt too safe and possibly boring…
And if I had had an inkling of the things that in the end I found very hard, I probably wouldn’t have done them!
But most of all, I feel I had to go through the hard things to learn from them, and come out stronger. That includes sharp learning curves when I landed in cities where I knew no one, or in roles that I was not (yet) qualified for.
Admittedly, my answer would likely have been different at the time… I’ve had my fair share of awkward and desperate moments….
But taking a longer view, I see this was all just part of the process, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have any regrets (or maybe you just caught me in a really great mood)!
Where do you see the future of AI?
I see the future of AI as taking what is the best in human beings and scaling those qualities through computing. I’m fascinated by how AI can scale uniquely human traits, such as Emotions and that unique skill of Communication. I’ve had a long-standing obsession with Emotion AI, which learns and recognizes human emotions, and uses that knowledge to improve everything from marketing campaigns to in-vehicle experiences to healthcare.
What then really appealed to me about HourOne is the ability to scale the unique human skill of Communication. Using Generative AI, we’re able to create thousands of videos featuring real human presenters, with a full range of human expression, in a matter of minutes. And it’s not just scale: AI can endow these presenters (who can be teachers or health coaches, or sales assistants, or customer service reps…) with new skills such as speaking any language. In this case AI helps to scale the ability to communicate with people on their level, by transcending any one human’s biological limitations. This opens the floodgates to professional video at scale, which becomes indispensable in an increasingly virtual existence.
What is something you want our reader to know?
As the world becomes increasingly virtual, we want to make sure that human beings have a central role in that world. What might not be so obvious is that all our synthetic characters (there are a hundred of them, and counting) are based on real human beings whose likeness we have copied – with their permission. When businesses “hire” these characters to appear in their videos, the humans behind the characters get paid, and this is all contractually bound. I think one of the things people find scary about AI is the idea that it’s taking over and will leave humans behind. We believe that AI will transform the nature of work, – and we see ourselves as a positive force in that change.
Though it’s early days, we believe that being a synthetic character will be a viable profession – that could be a novel answer to the “where do you want to be in 10 years…” question!
What has COVID-19 taught you?
When disaster strikes, I’m reminded of Mike Tyson’s iconic quote: “everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.” Covid, especially back in March 2020, was one of those moments. I was stunted and I stumbled, and then I took the relative quiet to remind myself that I’ve been in tough situations before and I have the wherewithal to work through it. And besides, literally the whole world was in the same boat and I was one of the fortunate ones. I was reminded of both radical self-reliance (the need to look inward and to find the resourcefulness in yourself to work things out) – and giving in to the vulnerability and humility of the moment. I found it a strangely potent mix, and for me there were some precious silver linings.
On the subject of silver linings, I’ve recently been reading up on the Stoics, who were big proponents of silver linings, and conditioned themselves to actively look for them, with the purpose of creating a more happy existence. I’ve learned that the Stoics believed that life’s challenges were planted as tests by the Stoic gods. The name of the game was to respond to these challenges with as much ingenuity (“workarounds”) and calm as possible – the more these two qualities were achieved the higher the score, which also set them up better for the next challenge. The ingenuity was often an exercise in shifting perspectives, in order to look on the bright side and reduce suffering… A thought experiment worth contemplating.