MIT's Cynthia Breazeal talks our robot future with Thomas Friedman

Cynthia Breazeal stopped by a global gabfest hosted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to talk about how there’s no need to worry that the robots she’s working on at MIT are going to take over the world and eat us.

You might think of her talks as, “Take Me To Your Future.”

“I see it as a technology for personal transformation,” said Breazeal, who directs the personal robot group at MIT’s Media Lab. “It’s technology all about human amplification.”

You can find her TED talk on the subject here.

Breazeal, speaking on stage with Friedman at Thomas L. Friedman’s Next New World forum at San Francisco’s Metreon, talked about a world — coming soon — when robots will be our friends. They will help workers learn new skills, help kids with homework, care for us when we’re sick. (I’d want one that I could beat at Blackjack.)

Besides being interesting, Breazeal’s talk was notable given that the Friedman’s conference, which is a money-maker for his employer, has taken some heat for its lack of diversity. (Never mind the ick factor of naming a conference after yourself. We’ll put that one on the Times marketing machine.)

Back to Breazeal and her robots. It’s probably no surprise that the idea of working with robots freaks a lot of people out. But here’s the thing: Breazeal, who’s given a lot of thought to these things, has a refreshing way of looking at the coming robotics revolution. Robots are not coming to replace us; they’re coming to make us better at what we do.

“The new, new thing is how it really engages with you,” she said, “not just as a tool, but as a partner.”

Consider the place of robots in factories. For years, they’ve been ominous machines, segregated from the human workforce and roped off for safety reasons. In some places, that’s changing.

“Now, you’re side-by-side, doing something together and I think that’s a profound change,” she said. “To me, that’s a more enlightened view. It’s not a replacement. It’s extending human capabilities.”

Breazeal first started thinking seriously about personal robotics back in the day when NASA landed the robotic rovers on Mars. It occurred to her that we could send robots to the bottom of the ocean and to the planets in outer space.

“But why aren’t they in our homes,” she wondered. “Where are they?”

Well, they’re coming. Something I touched on in this column.

Think about the evolution of computing. At one time, computers were for experts at big companies or institutions. The idea of having one in your house was ludicrous. And then the PC, a breakthrough that was nothing but a radical revolution. (I relived a little of that history recently.)

“We went into it, as a field, thinking about what it would be like to live with these things?” she said. “How do we need to re-conceptualize the design so that nearly everyone can use them?”

And while Breazeal and others in her field understand that the idea of walking and talking technology can be disconcerting, she also understands that we humanoids will approach robots in ways that are different from how we view our other gadgets.

“They move around,” she said. “They sense the world. We don’t think of it as a thing, governed by the laws of physics. We think of it as a social entity.”

In Breazeal’s world of robots, robots don’t replace teachers; they carry on a teacher’s instruction at home with a student. They won’t replace workers; they will help train them and will assist them to do their jobs better or to move on to better jobs. They won’t replace doctors and nurses, but they will provide the 24-hour observation that some patients will require.

“It’s non-judgmental. It’s very patient. It’s always attentive,” she said of your typical, personal robot. “It’s your supportive sidekick that is always there for you.”

Breazeal, of course, exhibits the sort of techno-optimism that is typical, maybe even required, of innovators. But there is no doubt that the potential that robotics hold for good is enormous. And like so many technological revolutions, you can rest assured that you are not going to stop change from happening.

I, for one, am a little more reassured that people like Breazeal are among those who are working to bring to life our new best friends.

An image of Mike Cassidy appears on the screen of a bow-tie wearing robot during a virtual tour of E Systems in Santa Clara in January. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.