Innovation

Is the world ready for a robot psychiatrist? A conversation with Joanne Pransky

In 1986, Dr. Joanne Pransky dubbed herself "the world's first robot psychiatrist." TechRepublic talked to Pransky about how human-robot relationships have evolved, and will evolve in the future.

Pepper
Dr. Pransky with Pepper

As a kid, Joanne Pransky was fascinated by Isaac Asimov, especially his story of Robbie, a humanoid robot who becomes playmates with a human named Gloria. In the story, Gloria's parents get concerned that that their daughter isn't socializing with other kids and they get rid of Robbie, her best friend.

"She never got over it," said Pransky. "Gloria spent her whole life searching for Robbie."

That's when Pransky, now self-dubbed "the world's first robot psychiatrist," (she owns the registered trademark for the term, as well) first began to understand that these issues would become important in the future. Pransky went on to study cognitive psychology at Tufts University. "I'd always been concerned about the exponential rate of technology and keeping up with it from a psychological, social, and emotional perspective," she said.

An education in robots

When Pransky started studying child development—Bruner, Erikson, Piaget and Kohlberg's stages of moral development—"it hit me hard. I wanted to know the psychological effects of technology." She went to the electrical engineering department to ask the chairman if any studies were being done on this. "I even went to a psychiatrist at Tufts," Pransky said, "but he was Freudian and didn't get what I was saying." So she left it alone.

In the mid 1980s, Pransky sold PCs for small businesses and saw firsthand how new technology could produce anxiety in the workplace. When computers were first introduced in the office, she said, executives would get them but not know how to use them, and secretaries would be "petrified." So, knowing that technology would only become more critical in the future, she decided to immerse herself fully in the robotics industry-starting in 1986, she attended everything from trade shows to technical conferences to world science fiction conventions. "I saved my money and traveled to various parts of the world, seeking an innovative and interesting robot to pitch to Late Night TV," said Pransky. "I went to NYC to see the first robotic bartender (about the size of a room) and to Canada to see the first robotic sow used in the agricultural industry to automatically feed pigs."

But Pransky decided this still wasn't enough. "In 1990, I realized that I needed to be 100% immersed in a robot company in order to learn more about the industry." She began working for an American subsidiary of a Japanese industrial robot manufacturer, Sankyo Robotics, in Boca Raton, FL, selling industry robots. "As an industrial robot salesperson (one of the first non-engineers and women to do this), I learned about the perception, the business and justification, and the technical evolution of robotics, from visiting hundreds of manufacturing plants in the United States for a decade," said Pransky.

Her company had the first industrial robot to perform a hip replacement in 1994, a major milestone. "I began to understand the robot evolution," Pransky said. "I tried to promote service robotics—non-industrial robotics—to the public. I was their good-will ambassador."

Becoming a "robot psychiatrist"

Calling herself a robot psychiatrist was Pransky's tongue-in-cheek way to say that robots will need our help—a reference to Asimov's robopsychologist Susan Calvin. "This isn't when robots are used as therapists—I don't do that," she said. "I knew that one day, like a pet or like a child, we would take a robot to a shrink." According to Pransky, robots, like pets, would begin to "accompany us when we travel, we will ensure they have the latest and best maintenance upgrades after we die, and we may believe, that when we leave them alone, they will miss us and be lonely."

When robots co-exist with us, Pransky said, people project onto them. "They want the robot to show anger and excitement and happiness and sadness."

In 1989, three years before his death, Asimov dubbed Pransky the real world Susan Calvin.

She's had a few actual patients. In 1994, Pransky was the official psychiatrist of a ProtoAndroid (PA) at RoboFest 5 in Austin, Texas. She was also the formal psychiatrist of Val, a roboceptionist developed in 2004 as a joint project by Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science and the School of Drama (Pransky is the Valerie's 'psychiatrist' referred to in #3). Val and Pransky developed an email correspondence through which Pransky counseled her on issues related to humans, the workplace, and her future goal of becoming a lounge singer.

But while Pransky contends that there are several robots (e.g. Pepper) and many Chatbots (e.g, Evie) with whom a human can have intelligent conversations with today, physical robots "do not yet have the ability to understand an abstract conversation with me and be able to act upon changes in their current behavior or environment, based on the discussion" said Pransky.

So what does a robopsychiatrist really mean? For Pransky, it's a mix of (limited) coaching for bots (in the case of Val) as well as consulting with their makers to help improve interactions and build relationships between humans and robots.

Robots on TV

One of Pransky's concrete successes, however, has been talking about (and bringing) robots on to television.

"The best thing I could do was to prepare the world for technology by acclimating them," said Pransky. "My goal was to bring robots on national TV so we could see what they do and don't do. My model was Joan Embery, the San Diego Zoo woman who brought rare animals onto The Tonight Show. How can we discuss these heavy issues if people don't even know what I'm talking about when I say 'robot'?"

Pransky has talked about her work with robots on CNN, The Discovery Channel, the Sci-Fi Channel, and even the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. And she debuted the Chinese Twin Android to the American public by bringing them on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Robots—then and now

We've become used to seeing robots more integrated into daily life, in the form of drones, self-driving cars, performing assembly-line tasks in factories. But decades ago, when all this began, It was still very new. "When I started," Pransky said, "I'd say, 'I'm the first robot psychiatrist.' People would say 'Oh! What do you think of the new Jane Fonda videotape?' I'd say 'No, not aerobic. Robotic!' People didn't know."

Now, the public is starting to see the introduction of robots into everyday life. "You're seeing the beginning of a new field," said Pransky. "The internet of things will be such that everything will be robotic and robot-related technology. Regardless of what it looks like, the verbal interaction is going to be key for a major change in our intersection with technology."

Ethics of social robots

Pransky continues to wrestle with issues around the ethics of social robots. "A lot of robots will acquire enough intelligence that we will treat them as companions and partners," said Pransky. She worries about how a growing dependency on machines will impact human-to-human relationships. "My main concern is that humans will begin lacking social skills. The upcoming generation is not going to have the basis for these skills. They will need to understand how to be social, the qualities of being social, the benefits of being with people."

Pransky also worries about how "communicating indirectly all day via robot-related technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, three-dimensional avatars," will affect us. "How will we be able to tell the difference between reality and non-reality? I think that our society should be giving more emphasis in education on human social and emotional intelligence."

With developments in voice technology and humanoid robotics rapidly advancing, the need for robot psychiatrists may not be such a far-out idea. Today, Pransky sees her main role as "helping humans pave the way for their interactions with robotic technology." Still she added, "I like to think that a robot psychiatrist will be called for in the next ten years."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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