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A Conversation with Cynthia Breazeal
3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

Duotone of Cynthia Breazeal
Credit: Webb Chappell

March 1 , 2005 Cynthia Breazeal directs the Robotic Life group at MIT's Media Lab. In "Leonardo the Lovable" Alan meets one of Cynthia's latest creations, an adorable little robot that's hard to resist. Throughout her career, Breazeal's been revolutionizing the essence of robot/human interactions. The machines she designs aren't black boxes meant to perform a single, specific task. Breazeal develops social robots who learn from and respond to the people in their environments. She's refining the way people and robots work together, by figuring out how the machines can be more like us — instead of forcing us to adapt to the requirements of the machines.
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On her first interest in robots: As with a lot of things in life, in retrospect you can go back and make a very clear path of how you got there and have it make perfect sense. But as you're actually going through the process there's a lot of serendipity involved. I often tell people that my first fascination with robots was seeing the first Star Wars when I was a little girl in grade school.

Photo of Star Wars' C3PO and R2D2
Sociable, autonomous robots from a galaxy far, far away first sparked Cynthia Breazeal's interest.

I just fell in love with R2D2 and C3PO, as did, of course, all of my classmates! It was certainly not unique or unusual. So that was my first real fascination, I guess, with intelligent, social, personality-rich machines. I was old enough to know that they didn't really exist and I was old enough to know that they may never exist as long as I was alive, but that was the moment where I became aware of the notion of this special kind of robot, which is very different from the way that robots had been portrayed in cinema, as well as real life. The fact that these robots were full-fledged characters that had rich personalities, that had friendships with people, that was a very different viewpoint than I'd certainly been exposed to at 10 years old.

On how she got started on her career path:
My family is very science and technology oriented. So it's no surprise that I ended up doing a career based on science and technology. But growing up I was more interested in medicine, being a doctor, and that lasted pretty much through high school. My parents had encouraged me to major in engineering, and their argument was that it keeps your doors open — it certainly still allows you to go to a great med school, but if you decide you don't want to go to grad school you can still get a very good job with a degree in engineering. It was a very practical decision, very sound advice.

So I ended up majoring in electrical and computer engineering at UC Santa Barbara. At that time in college, I decided that what I really wanted to do was be an astronaut. To do that I would have to be a mission specialist, which means being a scientist with some sort of science related to the mission of why you're going up. So I thought that space robotics would be a great thing to get a doctorate in — it's certainly relevant to a lot of missions. So that's how I ended up going back to robotics. I remember my junior year I had a friend who had just read an article about planetary rovers and was talking about how cool they are and I was thinking, 'yeah they are pretty darn cool.' At Santa Barbara they had a robotics center that I worked in part time and over the summers, so I sort of got my hands dirty. Next page

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