On Thursday, March 1st, Cynthia Breazeal (Associated Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT and director of the Robotic Life Group at the MIT Media Lab) gave a public talk at the University of Washington, Seattle campus, entitled "The Art and Science of Social Robots." The widely attended talk focused on four current projects at the MIT Media Lab:
- TIKL (Tactile Interaction for Kinesthetic Learning), a system of wearable robotics that uses vibro-tactile feedback for the purposes of kinesthetic learning. Here, what I found most striking was that, when compared with visual stimuli alone, kinesthetic learning suggests increased learning patterns in humans. Breazeal's TIKL example was a golf lesson, which would allow wearers to improve their game not by mirroring a virtual simulation on a screen, but rather by wearing a suit equipped with small actuators that deploy vibrations, thereby cueing the novice to physically emulate the bodily actions of an expert such as Tiger Woods.
- RoCo (Robotic Computer), an interactive computer that actually moves along with the user. When discussing RoCo, Breazeal evoked the Apple iMac G4 commercial, wherein a passer-by stops in front of a store window and begins a game of mimicry with a G4, which, as it turns out, is able to respond in an extraordinarily human fashion. Based upon a similar idea, the RoCo project seeks to enhance cognitive learning through expressive, human-computer interaction; the continuity of affect; and, the manipulation of user posture.
- Leonardo, which/who is a socially intelligent, autonomous robot. Leonardo seeks to interact and work with humans by understanding social perspectives. That is, Leonardo learns through tutelage and the presence of both humans and presumably, at some point, if not already, other robots. Breazeal's articulation of Leonardo stressed the importance of expressions and emotions that are unique to robots and not pre-programmed. What robots like Leonardo call for, then, is a way of thinking and engaging robots as other than automata.
- Huggable, an interactive teddy bear that serves therapeutic applications. People are more content in the presence of animals, but what happens when pets are not available or people are allergic to them? The Huggable is one possible answer. Though, at the moment, the Huggable still feels like a machine, its aim is to interact with humans through touch. Since it has sensate skin and calming voice actuators, it should be able to respond to humans in ways that reduce stress and anxiety. Of course, the Huggable would be particularly beneficial in spaces such as hospitals and nursing homes. Too, Breazeal mentioned the Huggable's application in fields such as distance learning and remote instruction, whereby people could "tap in" into and teach via a robot avatar in a child's home.
From my perspective as a graduate student and teaching assistant in the English department at UW-Seattle, Prof. Breazeal's talk opened up a world of questions and areas for future inquiry in the sciences, arts, and humanities. Considering the post-talk Q&A, her talk was well-attended by people, both from UW and other local communities, who approach social robotics from an array of vantages and experiences. I attribute such vast richness in audience interest simultaneously to Breazeal's fascinating research and to how she emphasizes the positive impact of human-robot intermediations on everyday practices. For example, Renée Before, a freshman at UW-Seattle, writes: "I also really enjoyed an optimistic perspective on robots for once, especially the therapeutic Huggable! I was amazed at the ability of Leonardo to learn and the reciprocal effect in helping the human learn to teach. I found it so interesting to connect psychology, humanities, and robotics all into one. The connection was not only interesting but also extremely helpful in learning, especially in relation to the classes I am taking right now." Given responses such as Renée's, the future of robotics brings with it a new language, which need not be situated in rhetorics of alienation or control.
The second day of Prof. Breazeal's visit included an informative and lively seminar at the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the UW. As with Breazeal's public talk, her seminar was also composed of an interdisciplinary audience. I cannot do justice to the breadth of questions and the depth to which Breazeal responded; however, I can highlight what I found particularly intriguing about the seminar. By blending the sciences, arts, and humanities, Breazeal's approach to social robotics does not rely upon human-centric analyses of emotion, subjectivity, cooperation, and discovery. Indeed, the research at the Robotic Life Group at the MIT Media Lab is truly re-signifying the discourse surrounding even the most ordinary human engagements with technologies. With innovations like Leonardo, TIKL, RoCo, and Huggable, we can start thinking of human-robot interactions in terms of mutuality, self-awareness, and collaboration. And the questions that arise are ethical, philosophical, technical, biological, historical, socio-cultural, and no doubt exciting.