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Sociable Robots

04/29/2008 6:00 PM Museum
Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauz_ Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology,Program in Science, Technology, and Society; Cynthia Breazeal, SM '93, SCD '00, Professor, Program in Media Arts and Sciences

Description: Cynthia Breazealmakes social robots, machines with the capacity to interact with people on psychological terms. She says they "open up a new world of questions." But these increasingly sophisticated devices make Sherry Turkle uneasy, since they challenge the idea of human relationships and the very "purpose, importance, of living things."

Since inventing her famously expressive, anthropomorphic Kismet, a robot that engages and learns from people through auditory, facial and social cues, Breazeal has evolved her work using robots as a scientific tool for social understanding. Her labs are putting robots through the paces of major child development milestones, such as appreciating the mental states of others. For instance, robot Leonardo has rudimentary object permanence, inferring from a tricky human's behavior where a Big Bird toy has been hidden.

Another project uses robots in home"based weight management studies, where they cue dieters to provide information on food intake, and provide moral support to wavering calorie counters. People form emotional attachments and name their robot partners, says Breazeal, and the robot method easily outperforms pen and paper, or computers, in helping people stick with their programs.

Another effort involves the Huggable, a teddy bear robot that acts via an internet connection to allow a distant grandparent to touch and play with the grandchildren -- "as a new kind of communication media." And Breazeal provides a first"view of the MDS, a semi"autonomous robot that will combine state"of"the"art mobility, dexterity and social interaction.

This new species of extremely appealing, touchy, feely, humanoid machine puts Sherry Turkle on edge. She sees society on the verge of a "robotic moment," as plugged in, instant messaging, virtual world denizens increasingly embrace machines as "creatures they feel a desire to connect with and nurture." She believes people are passionately attaching themselves to sociable robots, and fantasizing a reciprocal interest from these machines. "You care about them and want them to care about you. Nurturance turns out to be the killer app in robotics." She describes a graduate student who would gladly trade in her boyfriend for a robot exhibiting "caring human behavior."

There is a danger that we'll become accustomed to superficial cyber connections, and develop lower expectations for human to human interactions, says Turkle. Cyber intimacy may lead to cyber solitude. And you can turn off a robot when it bores you, or conversely, depend on it to "live" forever, while human relations come with endless baggage, complexities and sometimes unhappy endings. Says Turkle, "Roboticists have come to speak of 'I Thou' relationships with machines, but what is the value of interactions that contain no understanding of us and that contribute nothing to the shared store of human meaning? These are not questions with ready made answers."

About the Speaker(s): Cynthia Breazeal directs the Media Lab's Personal Robots group. She was previously a postdoctoral associate at MIT's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab. Breazeal is particularly interested in developing creature"like techologies that exhibit social commonsense and engage people in familiar human terms. Kismet, her anthropomorphic robotic head, has been featured in international media and is the subject of her book Designing Sociable Robots, published by the MIT Press. She continues to develop anthropomorphic robots as part of her ongoing work of building artificial systems that learn from and interact with people in an intelligent, life"like, and sociable manner.

Breazeal earned Sc.D. and M.S. degrees at MIT in electrical engineering and computer science, and a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Sherry Turkle is engaged in active study of robots, digital pets, and simulated creatures, particularly those designed for children and the elderly as well as in a study of mobile cellular technologies. She is the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Falling For Science: Objects in Mind, appeared in Spring 2008. The third volume, The Inner History of Devices, will follow in Fall 2008. Turkle is currently completing a book on robots and the human spirit based on the Initiative's 10"year research program on relational artifacts.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

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