Category Archives: gender

The Uncanny Valley at IROS

Masahiro Mori Uncanny Valley-1338919046064

For me, the highlight of IROS was the Uncanny Valley special session, although the sheer size of the IROS conference and the parallel iRex industrial and service robot expo also gave much food for thought. In particular, the new coworking robots from Kawada [video] and ABB look very interesting, but it’s clear that it still takes a long time for research to transition into robust applied robotics.

The Uncanny Valley Revisited was a special tribute to Emeritus Professor Masahiro Mori, organized by co-chairs Ken Goldberg, UC Berkeley and Minoru Asada, Osaka U. Masahiro Mori’s 1970 article, Bukimi no Tani Gensho, described a phenomenon of unease that is felt as animated beings become more similar to real beings.

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Labelled the ‘uncanny valley‘ in reference to Freud’s concept of the Uncanny (Unheimlich), Mori’s work first appeared in translation in 1978 and proceeded to be broadly adopted in the art world and cultural/social sciences. Astonishingly, Mori believes that robotics only noticed his concept in the mid 2000s, when papers citing the uncanny valley were presented at HRI conferences. Elizabeth Jocum from Aarlsberg U was one of several to speakers to point to the early and deep impact of Mori’s idea in other disciplines, including the arts.

It’s apt that the art world was first to appreciate the Uncanny Valley hypothesis, as Freud himself said that the uncanny is the only thing more strongly felt in art than in life. It’s also a dynamic rather than a static phenomenon, as other speakers attested. Marek Michalowski discussed the impact that animators have had on the field of human robot interaction. After all, animation has been a strong field for over 100 years and is primarily concerned with creating a compelling imitation of life. In the process, animators utilize much more than just the static superficial appearance of a character. Sound, perspective, staging, background, color and timing all enhance or destroy the illusion of life.

Freud’s original concept of the uncanny is also more closely aligned to general anthropomorphism, where the impact is less on the closeness of appearance to human and more on the human ability to ascribe emotion, agency and symbolism to logical, mechanical events or objects.

Mori intended for his theory to be a simple warning for robot designers to consider the possible affect of their constructions, and he calls for robots to be made less life-like or human-like, as he wishes for technology to have positive and not negative contributions to the world.

Robots are already out there in the world, and I think we are frequently unprepared for the range of anthropomorphism that even unlikely looking robots can attract. This is well described in the work of Nass and Reeves in The Media Equation and leads to the ‘new ontological status’ hypothesis put forward by Kahn Jr, Reichardt, Kanda and Ishiguro. Generally speaking, I find that roboticists oversimplify the uncanny valley hypothesis. Mori himself describes it as a clue rather than a theory, so it was refreshing to hear so many great speakers give it much needed dynamism and depth.

This post originally appeared in “Robotics by Invitation – IROS” on robohub.org

Ada Lovelace Day: Women in robotics

Maykah team at Maker Faire: Alice Brooks, Bettina Chen, Jennifer Kessler who make ‘Roominate’ the DIY electrical dollhouse.

Celebrate women in science and technology today, in honor of Ada Lovelace, world’s first computer programmer. Ada Lovelace Day was started by Suw Charman-Anderson in 2009 in recognition that good role models are crucial to engaging and retaining women in STEM.

I’m going to celebrate Ada Lovelace day by recognizing the awesome things that people are doing to encourage girls to become engineers. Robotics is an exciting area with many amazing and influential women. It’s proven to be an enticing entry point for K-12 students into STEM career choices. I was going to post a list of great women in robotics but an article crossed my desk today talking about one of the subtler difficulties of attracting girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering & math).

Girls decide what they AREN’T going to study much earlier than they decide what they will study (and much sooner than boys do). So, girls are far more likely to limit their possible career choices before they are actually ready to make them. Intervention at college level, or even high school level comes far too late according to Stephen Cooper, associate professor of computer science at Stanford University and chairman of the board of the Computer Science Teachers Association for US K-12 educators.

There is a window of opportunity to excite and inspire girls that is wide open in elementary school and rapidly closing in the middle school years (11-14yrs). Programs such as the First Lego League can be critical interventions. So can after-school robotics clubs but not if  we don’t have proactive gender policies.

Two weeks ago, the robotics after-school program kicked off at my children’s middle school. It was advertized in the school newsletter and the gifted & talented program. The school has an approx equal ratio of boys/girls, around 800 in total. 66 students wanted to join the club. There were only 4 girls and they were all 6th graders (11yrs old) not 7th or 8th graders. This is in a supportive environment where the volunteer coach (me), the teacher and high school mentors are all female!

Based on my previous experience building female participation, I will take extra care to put the girls in a team with friends, to encourage them to bring friends along and to nip in the bud any undermining behaviors. But it still makes me sad.

That’s why I’m going to cheer myself up and celebrate Ada Lovelace day by recognizing some of the awesome things that people are doing to encourage girls to become engineers.

Roominate: A toy that inspires girls (or anyone who likes building houses) to build circuits and make their house come to life! Roominate was started by 3 young women at Stanford and thoroughly tested on children at the Exploratorium.

 

Goldieblox: A construction toy and book series, Goldieblox might be for young girls but there still aren’t enough interesting girl toys out there according to founder Debbie Sterling and Riley.

 

Lilypad Arduino: Microcontroller board designed for wearables and e-textiles by Leah Buechley and Sparkfun. It can be sewn to sensors, power supplies and actuators with conductive thread.

 

Cubelets: A modular construction toy, and CMU spinoff, that appeals to both young and old with their very tangible interface.

Scratch: A programming language and education community designed at MIT to encourage everyone to create and share interactive stuff. Scratch can be used with game controllers and sensors and can also be used to program motors, including Lego.

 

Minecraft: A virtual building game, you can build anything you can imagine. At night monsters come out. My middle school girls love it.

 

I also hope that initiatives like Robot Garden - our soon to open robot hackerspace – will appeal to a wide range of the community. We have carefully selected the name and our ‘brand’ to be as inclusive and inspiring as possible.

Women Who Tech Infographic

Where is feminism when you need it?

Where is feminism when you need it? That question is currently being asked, and answered, in Silicon Valley. Whether it’s discussing the resurgence of sexism, finding the new flavors of feminist, cheer leading for all the fab women in tech and pushing for more women to join the geektrain; or whether it’s asking hard questions about how the heck we manage to be female in high power areas, the discussions are plentiful and the responses thoughtful. I’m collecting some here:

A great starting point in Silicon Valley is Women 2.0 . Founded in 2006 by Shaherose Charania and Angie Chang, Women 2.0 is a global network and social platform for influencers that drive trends and decisions — as startup founders and as consumers. Their mission is to inform, inspire and educate a new generation of females that are entrepreneurial and successful.

Unfortunately, the environment is still quite toxic to women in vast swathes of the tech world.

‘Gang Bang Interviews’ and ‘Bikini Shots’: Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem by Tasneem Raja at Mother Jones is a curation of stories, articles and blog posts about the bros/hos culture. She includes the Geeklist incident (and others) but also labor statistics on women in tech and comments from the smart people who realize that alienating 50% of the workforce is short sighted.

But recruiter beware, warn some veteran observers: a bros-only atmosphere will hurt no one more than the startups that foster it. “We simply cannot afford to alienate large chunks of the workforce,” notes Dan Shapiro, a tech entrepreneur who sold his comparison-shopping company to Google and now works there as a product manager. Shapiro, who has blogged in the past about sexism in the tech industry, notes that “it is a widely understood truth that the single biggest challenge to a successful startup is attracting the right people. To literally handicap yourself by 50 percent is insanity.”

Why your next board member should be a woman? recent post on Tech Crunch by Aileen Lee. My own piece on ‘The opportunities for Robots, Startups and Women‘ at Women2.org , MEGA Startup Weekend and the Robot Launch Pad.

But while the tech culture is still male dominated, I believe that the onus is on men to speak up. When women tweet, blog or speak about sexism, the resulting flamewar is usually far greater than any positive gains. Example: Shanley Kane (Geeklist/Twitter), Kathy Sierra (shut down blog in 2007), Rebecca Watson (Skepchick). This is one reason you don’t hear a lot of women complaining. Please don’t interpret silence as consent.

You might not hear the sighs or complaints, but you do hear a lot of appreciation from women if you speak in support of decent human behavior, (which makes sound financial sense too).  Chris Yeh spoke out recently at MEGA Startup Weekend and took the heat. It matters, as  Adria Richards, technology evangelist, replied in ‘Everyone Has a Voice When It Comes To Tech and Sexism’.

Once again, there is an international push for more women in technology. Tech Needs Girlsdescribes an international ‘road map for tech education and career changes’.

New York, 26 April 2012 – Global leaders from the US, Europe, Africa and Asia joined together today to debate and define a roadmap that will help break down barriers and overturn outmoded attitudes in a bid get more girls into technology-related studies and careers.

A high-level dialogue … identified misguided school-age career counselling, the popular media’s ‘geek’ image of the technology field, a dearth of inspirational female role models, and a lack of supportive frameworks in the home and workplace as factors that, together, tend to dissuade talented girls from pursuing a tech career.

Once again, the focus is on the pipeline. Getting girls into technology. But getting girls into the pipeline is no good if pond at the end of the pipeline is still poisoned.

As GeekDad’s guest writer Michael Eisen describes his 6 yr old daughter’s disappointment at being excluded from a massively geeky ‘father-son sweepstake’, he touches on the part of us that dies inside every time the world says ‘not for girls’ without even intending it to be a slap down. Whether it’s sexism, racism or some other ism creating division, we all need to speak up.