Cynthia Breazeal had an epiphany after NASA landed Sojourner on Mars. It was one of the greatest successes of robotics in history, and at that moment, she realized the world had sent robots into the depths of the ocean, into volcanoes, and catapulted them into space.
But where were they in people's lives? Where were they in the home?
She knew that building a robot that could deal with the human environment would be much more challenging than a robot that could navigate rock field landscapes — not that rocks were ever easy, but home life is much more complex.
"There are people and pets, minds, thoughts and beliefs and emotions, and robots need to be able to interact with them," Breazeal said. "No one was looking at that problem. What would it mean to build a robot with social and emotional intelligence that can ultimately do things in collaboration with people?"
Breazeal is known as one of the pioneers and leaders of social robotics, having had a hand in the creation of the first social robot, Kismet, made in the late 1990s. She currently leads MIT's Media Lab's Personal Robots Group, and is the founder of Jibo, the world's first family robot.
Her story with robotics began long ago, at age 10. Breazeal watched Star Wars and became captivated with R2D2 and C3PO. She never figured she would see the advent of robots in her lifetime. But she knew early on that she wanted to pursue science and technology. Breazeal's parents are both scientists, and worked in national labs in Livermore, California. She was always immersed in the world of computer science and engineering, and most of her friends' parents worked in the field as well.
"My mom, of course, being a woman in a field like computer science very early on, she had a lot of deeper insights of that world and that dynamic," Breazeal said.
Though she planned on becoming a doctor, her parents convinced her to pursue a degree in electrical and computer engineering at UC Santa Barbara. It so happened that around the time she attended, the school had started a robotics lab. Her fascination with Star Wars stayed with her through college, so she began taking more robotics classes. Then she read an article about planetary rovers and decided she might want to be an astronaut. So, Breazeal applied to graduate schools to get a doctorate in space robotics. She decided on MIT, where she would earn her ScD and MS degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. When she visited the lab for the first time, she was amazed.
"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," Breazeal said. "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."
Brezeal did her master's thesis on planetary microrovers and the lab she worked in collaborated with NASA on parts of the research.
After she had that epiphany when Sojourner landed, she switched her focus to social robotics, which used a completely different framework than what had ever been used in the field. It required a lot of study about developmental psychology and social behaviors of humans to better understand how we evolve as people, how our interpersonal relationships begin and grow, and how to best build a robot that will enhance our environment.
"Social robots are so intriguing. They almost sit at the perfect intersection. People say it's trying to replace people or pets, and we're not trying to replace anything, of course, but it's this new thing! It's this new kind of relationship that can provide real value, not replace or compete," she said. "That robot can work to help strengthen and facilitate other relationships."
Breazeal starting building Jibo when she decided that the technology had caught up enough to her vision. She and her team recognized the flexibility of the smartphone ecosystem, with open platforms and app developers who could collaborate from all around the world. She wanted to model a social robot after that.
Jibo was informed by that mindshift — robots were not just for manipulating stuff, and they could be a profound technology for human engagement, as well as a new medium for content.
She decided to crowdfund the robot. The Indiegogo campaign for Jibo reached its goal in just four hours, and raised $2.2 million total, making it one of the sites' top five most-funded campaigns ever. Jibo takes photos, speaks and engages people, and has an advanced AI that helps it act as a personal companion in the home. It learns about various members of the family, and can anticipate their actions to help make life easier.
"Our relationship with tech right now — we have to stop our human experience to deal with tech and then get back in," Breazeal said. "With Jibo, because [it is] hands free, you don't have to stop being in the human moment."
Breazeal knows how that is. She and her husband have three kids, and they're a gadget-loving family. But she's all too familiar with kids sticking their noses in smartphones and walking off. She said she loves technology, but she appreciates where it's falling short — particularly at home and in the context of family. Home is special, she said — she doesn't want it to feel like work.
Breazeal tries to bring that family culture to work, as well. When she first started out at MIT, there was a woman leading her lab named Anita Flynn who worked hard to establish a comfortable, supportive family environment, and she has carried that mentality with her throughout her career.
Teamwork is especially important in the field of robotics. The systems are extremely complicated, and it requires many areas of expertise to make progress. At Jibo, it's even more critical, because the idea of family is core to her company's mission.
She wants to help families succeed, thrive, and grow, and create a culture of innovation and sense of support in every environment. Families have a lot of stressors in this day in age, and she thinks technology can be a huge positive force if it's designed the right way. That's the mission of Jibo, but it's also Breazeal's larger outlook on science, robotics, and human environments.
"That thing that happened when I was 10 that allowed me to pursue something I was deeply personally passionate about, but wasn't just a passion, it was a vision," she said. "I feel fortunate that I can really chase that dream, because it's an ambitious dream."
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"So much of it is family time. I have three kids. Doing family activities, board games stuff like that, spending time with family. Spending my own time, it's more things around reading, getting that massage I desperately need and unwinding, going out with friends. I'm in a male dominated field, so relationships I have with my female friends are really valuable...spending time with them, going out and having lunch, or whatever."
What advice would you give your younger self?
"To understand what you're really passionate about it really important. If you're going to do really impactful work, it's very hard to do hugely impactful work you're not deeply passionate about. You can do valuable [work], but game-changing, different thinking kind of work? Work in the area you're truly passionate about."
What advice do you have for women?
"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...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.
"As moms we often put ourselves last on the list, everyone else comes first. We need to appreciate that we need to be able for other people, then we need to be there for ourselves. [But] somehow women, we just make it work. Don't worry, you will figure it out."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.