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Dr. Cynthia Breazeal: Human-Robot Interaction Researcher & AI Pioneer

March 5, 2021

Most people know who Google’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are and many people even have daily interactions with these personas, but few have met Kismet, Leonard, Aida, Autom, or Huggable1.

Dr. Cynthia Breazeal however, knows all five intimately because she designed them. Kismet, Leonard, Aida, Autom, and Huggable are robots Dr. Breazeal designed in pursuit of her goal to create robots that interact with humans in the early 2000s long before Siri or Alexa were introduced in 2011 and 2014, respectively3, 4.

Breazeal’s work on Kismet, a robot that responded to the voice and gestures of humans including expressions and head positions, first began in 1997 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she led the team working on Kismet as a postdoctoral associate at the university’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

At the time, Dr. Breazeal said “I'm building a robot that can leverage off the social structure that people already use to help each other learn” under the idea that a robot who can identify and respond to social queues would be more helpful and less heavily programmed as it built upon previous building blocks picked up from humans, similar to the way a child learns2. "The robot starts off in a rather helpless and primitive condition, and requires the help of a sophisticated and benevolent caretaker to learn and develop"2.

Dr. Breazeal’s passion for robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) began early when she watched Star Wars for the first time at 10 years old and was fascinated by R2D2 and C3PO5.

Due to her unquestionable knowledge and passion in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and robotics, it’s no surprised the Dr. Breazeal founded the Personal Robots Group at MIT’s Media Lab. As the daughter of two scientists, she had early access to the fields of computer science and engineering which helped her fascination turn into a profession5. Under the guidance of her parents, Dr. Breazeal earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara which fortuitously had just opened a robotics lab5. While working toward her BS, Dr. Breazeal homed in on robots used to explore space leading her to pursue a graduate degree in space robotics5. It was during this application process that Dr. Breazeal was brought to MIT, where she eventually earned an MS and ScD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science5, 6.

"All these robots, doing all these things like finding Coke cans -- today like simple behaviors, but I'd never seen a fully automated robot before," said Dr. Breazeal of MIT’s robotics lab in an interview with TechRepublic. "And that moment, where a childhood memory comes rushing back, I thought, if we're ever going to see robots like Star Wars, it's going to happen in a lab just like this. This is where it's going to start"5.

Dr. Breazeal’s long relationship with robots led her to her latest innovation—Jibo. This family friendly robot began as a crowdsourced campaign in 2014 on Indiegogo and was so popular that it not only reached its goal, but became one of the most funded campaigns on this platform ever5. Jibo, uses AI allowing it to “act as a personal companion in the home” while taking pictures and speaking with members of the family with the goal of making people’s lives easier5. While this concept may seem familiar, Jibo predated Amazon’s Echo and other similar interactive speakers7.

“What we really loved about Jibo is this capability to create digital embassy with any age, any race, any type of human,” said Marc Alba, President of NTT Disruption, who bought Jibo after the robot gave owners a sad goodbye message in 2019 telling them that the company and Jibo itself would not be operational any longer7, 8, 9.

Now in collaboration with NTT Disruption, Dr. Breazeal’s baby Jibo is moving into new territories including a completely virtual Jibo, exploring new fields such as education, and seeking new purposes such as providing joy and companionship to children in hospitals or the elderly9.

Dr. Breazeal’s long view of robotics and AI have positioned her and Jibo among giants like Amazon and Google who arrived in the market much later with their hit devices. As a pioneer in what she calls social robotics, Dr. Breazeal has published a well-received book on the subject titled Designing Social Robots, has served as a keynote speaker at multiple worldwide events such as the World Economic Forum, and received prestigious awards including being named the recipient of TIME magazine’s Best Inventions title for Jibo6.

When asked what advice she would give herself as a child, Dr. Breazeal said she would tell herself to pursue the same field she is currently in because she is passionate about the work, which makes all the difference.

“You can do valuable [work], but game-changing, different thinking kind of work? Work in the area you're truly passionate about," Dr. Breazeal told a TechRepublic interviewer5.

Her advice for other women in STEM? To recognize their own gifts and talents while making sure to advocate for themselves and ask for help when necessary.

"I work with a lot of incredibly talented women at MIT and Jibo and throughout my life, it always amazes me how women somehow just make it all work,” said Dr. Breazeal in the same TechRepublic interview. “I gave a commencement speech [at an] all girls academy, and I said to be an extraordinary woman doesn't mean you have to be superwoman...it's about knowing when you need help, asking for help, being there for others when they need help, growing these support networks”5.

References

  1. The Gentle Woman. (2016). Cynthia Breazeal. Retrieved from https://thegentlewoman.co.uk/library/cynthia-breazeal.
  2. MIT News. (2001, February 14). MIT team building social robot. Retrieved from https://news.mit.edu/2001/kismet.
  3. Bosker, B. (2013, January 22). SIRI RISING: The Inside Story Of Siri’s Origins — And Why She Could Overshadow The iPhone. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/siri-do-engine-apple-iphone_n_2499165.
  4. Vigliarolo, B. (2020, September 24). Amazon Alexa: Cheat sheet. Retrieved from https://www.techrepublic.com/article/amazon-alexa-the-smart-persons-guide/.
  5. Gilpin, L. (2015, February 6). Cynthia Breazeal: Social robotics pioneer. MIT lab leader. Proud mom. Retrieved from https://www.techrepublic.com/article/cynthia-breazeal-social-robotics-pioneer-mit-lab-leader-proud-mom/.
  6. MIT Media Lab. Cynthia Breazeal. Retrieved from https://www.media.mit.edu/people/cynthiab/overview/.
  7. Van Camp, J. (2019, March 8). My Jibo Is Dying and It's Breaking My Heart. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/jibo-is-dying-eulogy/.
  8. NTT Disruption. (2020, July 23). jibo the social robot returns, with its brand new website. Retrieved from https://disruption.global.ntt/jibo-the-social-robot-returns-with-its-brand-new-website/.
  9. Carman, A. (2020, July 3). JIBO, THE SOCIAL ROBOT THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE, IS GETTING A SECOND LIFE. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/23/21325644/jibo-social-robot-ntt-disruptionfunding.