Cynthia Breazeal

  • Walk into room 922 of the artificial intelligence lab at M.I.T., and you may notice a winsome robot in the corner trying desperately to get your attention. When Kismet is lonely and spots a human, it cranes its head forward plaintively. It flaps its pink paper ears and vocalizes excitedly in a babylike patter. Kismet's handlers call this an "attention-getting display." You would have to have a heart of stone to ignore this cute little aluminum...thing.

    From a physical standpoint, Kismet isn't much of a robot. It can't walk and grab things, as many robots today can. It doesn't even have arms, legs or a body. What sets Kismet apart is that it has been built with drives and equipped to engage in an array of interactions with people to satisfy those drives. In social terms, big-eyed, babbling Kismet may be the most human robot ever built. And it may be the closest we have yet come to building the kind of robots that populate science fiction and interact with humans in a natural way, like C-3PO from Star Wars.

    Kismet is the creation of Cynthia Breazeal, a postdoc in the Humanoid Robotics Group at M.I.T. Breazeal has studied for years under Rodney Brooks, perhaps the leading figure in the world of robotics. Breazeal got the idea for Kismet when she was working with Cog, another robot in Brooks' lab that was built to have the physical capacities of a human infant. Cog has a torso, a head and arms, and it can engage in simple tasks like turning a crank or playing with a slinky. Cog is physically gifted but completely lacking in social skills.

    That deficiency was driven home to Breazeal one day when she was interacting with Cog. Breazeal put an eraser down in front of Cog, and Cog used its arm to pick the eraser up. When the robot put the eraser down, Breazeal picked it up. Breazeal and Cog continued taking turns picking the eraser up and putting it down. To an outside observer, it might have looked like the robot was intentionally playing with Breazeal, but Cog's mind just didn't work that way. It was while engaging in this deceptively human-feeling interaction that Breazeal decided to try to build a new kind of robot, one that could play the eraser game with her and mean it.

    A Child of Science
    Breazeal was uniquely suited to the task of building this new robot. She grew up near the technology-rich area that would become Silicon Valley. Her father was a mathematician and her mother a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Her parents raised her, she says, to be "protechnology." Breazeal became captivated by robots at age 8 when she saw Star Wars for the first time. "I just fell in love with the Droids," she says, especially R2-D2. "But I was old enough to realize those kinds of robots didn't exist." Growing up, she considered becoming a doctor and an astronaut. But she never gave up her interest in robots. When she studied astronomy, she was particularly intrigued by lunar rovers, which are really just a specialized form of robot. After graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara, Breazeal went to M.I.T. in the early 1990s to become part of one of the world's

    most innovative robotics labs.

    Rodney Brooks was, at the time, working on smaller, insect-like robots. Breazeal helped out and ended up with a cameo role in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, the underground-classic documentary in which filmmaker Errol Morris profiles four people--including Brooks--who were pursuing unusual passions. When Brooks moved on to larger robots, Breazeal became the chief architect on Cog. Other than Brooks, she is the most senior person in the lab today. She got her Sc.D. this year, producing a dissertation titled Sociable Machines: Expressive Social Exchange Between Humans and Robots. Now she is headed to the job market.

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