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


  Photo of Robonaut

A human astronaut (in the foreground) works on an assembly task with Robonaut.
Credit: NASA

On robots as part of the team:
For a long time people were concerned with how you build robots that do things for you, kind of like a pseudo-slave that you send off to do something. What we're really interested in is how do you build robots who do things with you? How do you build a robot that can interact and cooperate and collaborate with you as an equal partner, rather than something that you operate as a tool or you send off to do something so you don't have to do it? It's important for some of the applications that Robonaut was contending with — how can you have a humanoid robot and a human astronaut perform, say, a construction task basically using the same tools and equipment? Or when you think of the elder community, I don't think they want to sit and have more reasons to be couch potatoes and have robots go off and do things for them. I think they want to remain active and engaged, they want to feel self-sufficient and independent. I think they might like having robots that can help them as assistants but they fundamentally want to be involved in living! Rather than this older, 1950s vision of 'oh, robots will go off and do everything for us, we'll just sit on the beach.' I don't think that's what people want, we want to be engaged in our lives! So we're interested in robots that are basically interacting as partners, rather than robots that are like slaves or tools.

On the number of women in science fields:
There are still a lot of social barriers to women pursuing math and science. We're not encouraged as much at an early age as boys, that's just a fact. I just read another study that because a lot of child-rearing responsibilities still fall on the woman, that they have to tend to voluntarily step outside of big information technology jobs because they want to take time to raise their family and to succeed in that workplace you have to keep learning and stay on top of your field. So there's so many social, environmental, cultural factors going on.

I think it's important to appreciate that there are outstanding women scientists and there are outstanding men scientists, this isn't a gender thing. It has much more to do with trying to encourage and foster a person to do the best work they can in their chosen field of study. You can't go from brain to success in career. You can't do that, there's too many things going on.

Photo of Cynthia Breazeal with Leonardo


People always ask me "because you're a woman do you bring something special to your field?" I like to think that I bring something unique because of who I am. And who I am is a whole bunch of stuff — I am a woman, but it's also that I was raised the way I was raised, at the time I was raised. I as a whole package bring these insights, I can't just describe it to you by gender or the fact that I was raised in California or that my parents were scientists. I can't say here's the one thing. It's all of those things. And I think in reality that's the way it is for everyone who brings unique stuff to their field. It's the whole package. There are women who find these questions fascinating, and a lot of men find it fascinating. You've got to take the person as a whole and that's why they bring the perspective that they do. You can't just reduce a person to one dimension and say that's it. It's all these things.

  Photo of Breazeal's cyberflora installation

Breazeal's cyberflora installation is a unique display of robotic flowers that respond to people. Credit: MIT media lab

Recommendations for those interested in following in her footsteps:
If you want to do robots there's going to be traditional math and science involved. So you can't shy away from that stuff. One encouraging thing right now is that there are a lot of examples of where math and science is no longer being applied to very dry sorts of problems but to a lot of creative endeavors. If you look at any state-of-the-art special effects film, all of the special effects you see, the computer graphics — there's major math and science going on to be able to create them. There are lots of really creative, artistic cross-disciplinary things happening now. When you're in high school or grade school you're learning these very basic things that — at least when I was growing up! — tend to be kind of dry. Appreciate that those skills are so powerful. They allow you to create and think about things with tremendous creative empowerment. So whether you apply that to traditional science or whether you apply that to do special effects in films or to go to Mars or whatever — all of those skills keep building on each other all the way through college and beyond. If you really want the kind of job where you get to decide what you want to build, what you want to do, what you want to achieve, you have that creative freedom. Science and technology is a great field to pursue to allow you to do that

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