How social robotics can more closely connect humans to machines

The future of AI encompasses compassion, empathy and more humanity than ever before, thanks in part to this female entrepreneur.

For years, computer scientists, science-fiction fans and the general public have been fascinated by the premise of human-machine interactions. Oftentimes in the sci-fi film realm, the smart machines soon turn evil, contributing to the idea that computers are not only calculating and cold, but also uncaring.

And recently there have been some real-world examples proving machine learning isn’t immune to social biases. For instance, Microsoft’s AI Chabot Tay was quickly taught about racism via social media. And there has been some evidence in AI-generated ads that machine learning innately contains our current societal imbalances. For example, women are less likely to be shown listings for high-level technology jobs.

Robots for real people

So artificial intelligence today isn’t just the stuff of sci-fi films. And despite some disturbing realizations around societal biases, now thanks to AI people can interact daily with devices in their homes, cars and anywhere really. These devices such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home can be programmed to deliver the news, share schedules and even search for trivia using voice commands.

But are these interactions with artificially intelligent machines truly interactive conversations? Not entirely, according to Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT Media Lab and founder and Chief Scientist of Jibo, Inc., who early on in her career realized more humanity had to be incorporated into robotics for the field to flourish.

“I had this insight that we are wired to harmonize with others. We are more together than we are alone. How do we create AI to be far more humanistic?” Breazeal said. “So much of AI is focused on our cognitive selves. We had a mind shift to consider a different kind of intelligence for AI: the social and emotional aspect of AI. Social was the interface needed. Social robots.”

From Star Wars to social robots

Breazeal, who spoke to about 200 attendees during at CA Technologies Women’s Tech Forum at the annual CA World 2017 conference, explained at the age of 10 she become inspired by a little droid most have heard of named R2-D2. And that co-pilot and sidekick to Luke Skywalker throughout the Star Wars films was more than a smart machine; it was a friend that understood human emotions.

“What would it mean to create robots that could collaborate with us?” Breazeal says. Social robotics incorporates the capability of recognizing people and people’s social cues because that is key to collaboration among humans. Social robots tap into relational AI that can work with humans over time and help humans reach goals. And in many cases, they have faces.

And while Breazeal’s career path didn’t begin with creating a social robot like R2-D2—she developed insect-like robots sent to space, for instance, and she developed Kismet, the first social robot—her current endeavor ties directly back to that inspiration. She realized throughout her work that robots should not only be for computer scientists and space explorers, but also for people of all ages and for varied purposes such as healthcare, education and more.

“The social robot as a platform for content is being brought to life. The interpersonal aspects of the technology are combined with the ability to learn about you and to be proactive and context-aware about your digital and real world, to be purposeful,” Breazeal explained.

Introducing Jibo

In November, her company of the same name launched Jibo, the social robot that wants to be part of your family. Unlike Amazon’s Alexa, which features an adult female voice, Jibo is more like a 12-year-old boy, Breazeal says, that can reach out to you and your family with jokes or small talk and not just wait to be assigned a task.

“Social robots can shift between being a useful tool to helpful companion and supplement and augment our human networks,” Breazeal said. The goal is to bring a warmth and affection to a machine that perhaps has been missing in robots up until now. Breazeal understands children are learning from technology more than ever before in today’s digital economy and that is why it is so critical to enable robots to empathize with human situations and emotions if they are to be even in part the technology teaching today’s children.

“As not only being an innovator, professor and entrepreneur, I am also a mom, creating the experience of home, and I want technology to fit into that experience,” she says.


Denise Dubie
A former tech journalist, Denise has 20+ years experience with IT industry content.


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