Robots, humans and the need for science super communicators

Alien Leaders

 “Take me to your leader.” Complex technologies require multidisciplinary thinkers, who can bridge knowledge silos and convey nuanced science and technology messages effectively. We don’t educate for these qualities nor do we reward them in employment. Where do we turn for policy advice in an emerging area that spans multiple domains?  Where do we find our next generation of technology leaders?

These are probably the most significant unrecognized problems the world faces in future proofing for technological change. The 1953 New Yorker cartoon that started the “Take me to your leader” meme shows two aliens newly arrived on earth asking a donkey to, effectively, give them policy guidance. This is exactly what our ‘brave new’ human-robot world looks like. 

 The recent widely reported Pew Research Center Report on AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs highlights the ridiculousness of the situation. The report canvassed more than 12,000 experts sourced from previous reports, targeted list serves and subscribers to Pew’s research, who are largely professional technology strategists. 8 broad questions were presented, covering various technology trends. 1,896 experts and members of the interested public responded to the question on AI and robotics. 

 The problem is that very few of the respondents have more than a glancing knowledge of robotics. To anyone in robotics, the absence of people with expertise in robotics and AI is glaringly obvious. While there are certainly insightful people and opinions in the report, the net weight of this report is worthless, particularly as findings are reduced to executive summary level comments such as;

 “Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers – with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”

 These findings could have come from any old vox pop. However, the Pew Research Center is well respected and considered relevant. The center is a non-partisan organization which provides all findings freely “to inform the public, the press and policy makers”, not just on the internet and future of technology, but on religion, science, health, even the impact of the World Cup.

 How do you find the right sort of information to inform policy and public opinion about robotics? And where do you find technology leaders for an emerging multidisciplinary field? 

Improving the quality of public policy

 Papers like Heather Knight’s “How Humans Respond to Robots” for the Brookings Institute and organizations like Robohub and the Robots Association, are good examples of initiatives that improve public policy debate. At one of the spectrum, an established policy organization is sourcing from established robotics experts. At the other end, a peer group of robotics experts is providing open access to the latest research and opinions within robotics and AI, including exploring ethical and economic issues.

Reports – Building public policy through good design

 Heather Knight’s report “How Humans Respond to Robots: Building Public Policy through Good Design” for the Brookings Institute is a good example of getting it right. The Brookings Institute is one of the oldest and most influential think tanks in the world, founded in Washington D.C. in 1916. The Brookings Institute is non-partisan and generally regarded as centrist in agenda. Although based in the US, the institute has global coverage and attracts funding from both philanthropic and government sources including, the govts of the US, UK, Japan, and China. It is the most frequently cited think tank in the world.

 Heather Knight is conducting doctoral research at CMU’s Robotics Institute in human-robot interaction. She has worked at NASA JPL and Aldebaran Robotics, she cofounded the Robot Film Festival and she is an alumnus of the Personal Robots Group at MIT. She has degrees in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering. Here you have a person well anchored in robotics with a broad grasp of the issues, who has prepared an overview on social robotics and robot/society interaction. This report is a great example of public policy through good design, if it does indeed makes its way into the hands of people who could use it.

 As Knight explains, “Human cultural response to robots has policy implications. Policy affects what we will and will not let robots do. It affects where we insist on human primacy and what sort of decisions we will delegate to machines.”  Automation, AI and robotics is entering the world of human-robot collaboration and we need to support and complement the full spectrum of human objectives.

 Knight’s goal was not to be specific about policy but rather to sketch out the range of choices we currently face in robotics design and how they will affect future policy questions, and she provides many anecdotes and examples, where thinking about “smart social design now, may help us navigate public policy considerations in the future.”

 Summary: “How Humans Respond to Robots”

 Brookings Report

Firstly, people require very little prompting to treat machines or personas as having agency. Film animators have long understood just how simple it is to turn squiggles on the screen into expressive characters in our minds and eyes. We are neurologically coded to follow motion and to interpret things as social or intentional actions. This has implications for human relationships, to the extent that studies show that we bond with devices and can also enjoy taking orders from them.

 There is also the impact of the uncanny valley, a term which describes the cognitive dissonance created when something is almost, but not quite, human. This is still a fluid, and far from well understood, effect but it foreshadows our need for familiarity, codes or conventions around human-robot interactions. Film animators created a vocabulary of tricks that create the illusion of emotion. So too robot designers are developing tropes of sounds, colors, and prompts that may borrow from other devices like traffic lights or from popular culture, to help robots convey their intentions to people.

 And Knight draws attention to the fallacy of generalization across cultures, with regard to our response to robots. Most HRI studies also show that we have very different responses along other axes, such as gender, age, experience, engagement etc. regardless of culture.

 Similarly, our general responses have undergone significant change as we’ve adapted to precursor technologies such as computers, the internet and mobile phones. Our willingness to involve computers and machines in our personal lives seems immense, but raises the issues of privacy and also social isolation as well as the more benign prospects of utility, therapy and companionship.

 As well as perhaps regulating or monitoring the uses of AI, automation and robots do we need to be proactive in considering the rights of machines? Or at least in considering conventions for their treatment? Ethicists are doing the important job of raising these issues, ranging from what choices an autonomous vehicle should make if faced with two options both involving human injury, or if we should ‘protect’ machines in order to protect our social covenants with real beings.

 This suggests that by default we should create more machines that are machine like, that telegraph their constraints and behaviors, rather than impulsively seek to anthropomorphize and personalize our devices.

 Knight outlines a human-robot partnership framework across three categories; Telepresence Robots, Collaborative Robots and Autonomous Vehicles. A telepresence robot is comparatively transparent, acting as a proxy for a person, who provides the high level control. A collaborative robot may be working directly with someone (as in robot surgery) or be working on command but interacting autonomously with other people (ie. delivery robot). An autonomous vehicle extends the previous scenarios and may be able to operate at distance or respond directly to the driver, pilot or passenger. The ratio of shared autonomy is shifting towards the robot. 

 The challenge is to create patterns of interaction that minimize friction and maximize transparency, utility and social good. In conclusion, Knight calls for designers to better understand human culture and practices in order to frame issues for policy makers. 

 Robohub – Using 21st century tools for science communication


 In the 21st century, science has access to a whole new toolbox of communications. Where 19th century science was presented as theater, in the form of public lectures and demonstrations, 20th century science grew an entire business of showcases, primarily conferences and journals. New communication mediums are now disrupting established science communication. 

 There is an increasing expectation that science can be turned into a top 500 Youtube channel, like Minute Physics, or an award winning twitter account, like Neil De Grasse Tyson’s @neiltyson which has 2.34 million followers. We are witnessing the rise of MOOCs (multi person open online courses) like the Khan Academy, and Open Access journals, like PLOS, the Public Library of Science.

 Berkeley University has just appointed a ‘wikipedian-in-residence’, Kevin Gorman. The ‘wikiepedian-in-residency’ initiative started with museums, libraries and galleries, making information about artifacts and exhibits available to the broader public. This is a first however for a university and the goal is twofold; to extend public access to research that is usually behind paywalls or simply obscure; and to improve the writing, researching and publishing skills of students. Students are encouraged to find gaps in wikipedia and fill them, with reference to existing research. 

 In between individual experts and global knowledge banks, there is space for curated niche content. Robohub is one of the sites that I think can play an integral role in both shaping the quality of debate in robotics and expanding the science communication toolbox. (Yes, I’m deeply involved in the site, so am certainly biased. But the increasing number of experts who are giving their time voluntarily to our site, and the rising web traffic, give weight to my assertions.)

 Robohub had its inception in 2008, with the birth of the Robots Podcast, a biweekly feature on a range of robotics topics, now numbering more than 150. As the number of podcasts and contributors grew, the non-profit Robots Association was formed to provide an umbrella group tasked with spinning off new forms of science communication, sharing robotics research and information across the sector, across the globe and to the public. 

 Robohub is an online news site with high quality content, more than 140 contributors and 65,000 unique visitors per month. Content ranges from one off stories about robotics research or business, to ongoing lecture series and micro lectures, to inviting debate about robotics issues, like the ‘Robotics by Invitation’ panels and the Roboethics polls. There are other initiatives in development including report production, research video dissemination and being a hub for robotics jobs, crowd funding campaigns, research papers and conference information.

 In lieu of a global robotics policy think tank, organizations like Robohub can do service by developing a range of broad policy reports, or by providing public access to a curated selection of articles, experts and reports. 

 Improving technology leadership in a multidisciplinary field

 Robot n Women

 As the size and scope of the sciences expand, the ability of individuals to map the world has disappeared. In the Renaissance, all of human knowledge could fit into one library, one university. There are now thousands of universities and millions of books. Science has been divided into major fields and hundreds of subfields.  An emerging field such as robotics draws from expertise in a range of other more established fields, but has few of its own named traditions, courses or experts. 

 How does this impact on the evolution of the field? Firstly, sourcing good policy guidance is difficult as it is hard for outsiders to know where robotics experts are. At an individual level, career trajectories are not well understood by others. A roboticist may work on mechanical automation, then on household appliances, then on interactions, then on software or on sensors, each in a different market area. Large organizations may have the resources and the innovation culture required to work across silos, but smaller organizations, particularly startups are locked out. 

 Startups, which are often seen as being innovative are actually poor at systematic innovation, just very good at executing on a unique idea. Startups, like robotics and some other areas of science, politics and finance are remarkably homogenous and conservative in makeup. This is both a problem for women and other minorities in tech, and an opportunity for organizations to proactively bring diverse thinkers on board as a systematic way to engage more deeply with different domains, to ‘speak in different languages’, and both reap the innovation benefits of multidisciplinarity and to meet the burgeoning skills shortages.

 Silos and polymaths

 Mech Head

 In 1802, Thomas Young delivered a series of 50 lectures to the Royal Institution in London. A physician and scientist, Young’s lectures covered everything from disproving Newton’s theory of light to translating the Rosetta Stone. He touched on all major fields of science and it is posited that he is the last real polymath, or ‘Renaissance Man’. These days it is not possible to grasp a field in only a few years study, let alone do justice to all of them.

 In 1956, CP Snow published an essay called ‘The Two Cultures’,  about the schism between intellectuals and scientists, between the arts and the sciences. While Snow may have been disproved over last 50 years on his conclusion about the moral health of the scientists, and their ‘staunch heterosexuality’, vs the intellectuals and their effete culture, his thoughts on the need to understand the basic tools or dialogues of both sides of the chasm, particularly with regards to robotics, are prescient even if still in the realm of science fiction.

 “It is more justifiable to say that those without any scientific understanding miss a whole body of experience: they are rather like the tone deaf, from whom all musical experience is cut off and who have to get on without it. The intellectual invasions of science are, however, penetratingly deeper. Psycho-analysis once looked like a deep invasion, but that was a false alarm; cybernetics may turn out to be the real thing, driving down into the problems of will and cause and motive. If so, those who do not understand the method will not understand the depths of their own cultures.”

 And it isn’t just that science is needed to understand culture, but that culture is how science is practiced and disseminated. It’s a fallacy to think that being human is sufficient to understanding human cultural, social or economic practices, particularly in a systematic fashion. 

 Snow’s essay anchored his book, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” in which he posits that knowledge is operating in ‘silos’ and that even scientists and engineers were also speaking in mutually incomprehensible languages, a growing problem for society. For more than 50 years, Snow’s thesis has been widely debated and solutions sought, but as many point out, the very people who seek solutions are at the same time caught up in all the apparatus of the institutions creating the problem. Universities are amongst the worst for talking the talk, not walking the walk. Multi- and inter-disciplinarity have become buzzwords rather than real practices.

 When I studied what I call human-robot culture, but technically was called ‘digital cultures’ alongside the ‘social robotics group’, my very small academic unit was based in the Humanities on one side of the campus and partnered with a very small unit based in Engineering on the other side. The campus was divided by the Pacific Highway, Australia’s oldest and largest arterial roadway. We were tenuously connected by a slim aerial footbridge. It frequently struck me that this orthogonal layout was a direct metaphor for the organization of the robotics field. 

 Not only was each group a silo isolated within its parent disciplines, digital cultures within film and social robotics within the field robotics center, but neither were integrated into the broader robotics field. And the academic world was oddly shut off from the mainstream world of commerce, employment and general life that streamed along the highway in our midst. (I have been trying to make the cross disciplinary connections stronger ever since, but fortunately  I am no longer striving for academic success.)

 Robotics needs to work across silos. The discipline involves mechanical and electrical engineering, control systems and cybernetics, computer science, artificial intelligence, psychology, design, and to effectively apply new technology in the world, interaction specialists and business specialists. What’s often missing from the mix? Polymaths. Super communicators who can translate the languages of each silo and go beyond, to get the big picture.

Robotics is still an emerging field, a technology growing in complexity, applied from an increasing number of disciplines. There are parallels in architecture. Architects are essentially the people in command of any built structure, no matter how complex and how many other disciplines are involved in the planning and construction. As such, they are highly trained in the social context as well as the technical constraints. Architecture has evolved from the building profession as the complexity of requirements increased. Whereas robotics, with comparatively few applications in the real world, risks being a tail wagging the dog. 

 Robotics is one of the worst cases of ‘the two cultures’ syndrome, and will remain an appendage until we build robust models of how people want to live alongside smart machines. As well as good technology leadership, we need a feedback loop for input from the rest of the world.

 Explaining the rest of the world to the people inside the building

 Div Future

 Large organizations have the ability to onboard ’thinkers’ who can interpret the rest of the world in a framework of ethics or policy, and this fits into a broader innovation culture. This can contribute to competitive commercial advantage but it entails a commitment to looking further ahead and afield than is usually corporately comfortable. in 1998, Intel lured Genevieve Bell away from her research at Stanford as a cultural anthropologist to, as Bell puts it, “explain the rest of the world to the people inside the building”.

This can have the complementary effect of also helping to translate the technology story into the languages of the rest of the world. As well as being named to several ‘top people in technology’ lists, Bell is also “Thinker in Residence” for South Australia. That’s a job title that conveys, “we don’t know where you’re going but we know someone needs to fill in the gaps on our roadmap”. Since her original work in the Digital Home Group, Bell has gone on to lead Intel’s new Interaction and Experience Research Group. 

We can see some fruits of Intel’s commitment to finding new places on the product road map in Jimmy, the 21st Century Robot. Just released by Intel Labs, Jimmy is an open source, 3D printable robot that be customized, personified and have applications developed to suit. This robot is clearly designed to engage with the maker movement, with changing methods of technology production and scope, reaching new communities for robotics. 

“By inviting the public to participate in the evolution of robots and fast-tracking innovation, the number of possibilities increase exponentially and hasten the reality of new developments in areas like healthcare, public transportation, and other sectors that can vastly improve all our lives.”

Intel is one of a number of large corporations making a virtue of thinking outside the box, fostering diversity and internal innovation and driving social change alongside of their technologies. On the whole this is considered as harnessing ‘entrepreneurial’ thinking rather than traditional business growth thinking, with Amazon and Salesforce being great examples of companies topping the innovation metrics (see Forbes lists 

Traditional methods work well for well understood problems, but when faced with great uncertainty, entrepreneurial methods are most useful. This is lean startup methodology, also known as ‘The Innovator’s Method’ via Jeff Dyer, Professor of Strategy at BYU, and Nathan Furr, Professor of Entrepreneurship at BYU, who have developed the metrics behind the Forbes lists as part of a 10 year study.

“The common themes we found were that most had adopted some type of “idea management system” to capture insights that could be turned into innovations. We also discovered that most of the companies had developed deep expertise in principles like those described by design thinking principles (e.g., techniques used to deeply understand customer needs), lean start-up principles (e.g., techniques to rapidly experiment and test prototype solutions to those customer needs), or both. They also applied those same experimentation principles to test different elements of their business model to take their solution to market. “

 The first two critical steps in the Innovator’s Method are to acquire insight and then to discover deeply what the problem is, who it affects and how. Only then do you build, measure and repeat until you have a business model. Customer discovery is built upon a foundation of surprise, capitalizing on unappreciated information.

One of the questions that Bell has tried to answer at Intel is “Where are all the women?” and “What do they want?”. Robotics is an applied science, a technology. It is deeply implicated in the real world and so the question of “what good is this technology?” is very important at every level including funding its development. It makes practical sense to invoke as much diversity and deep domain knowledge as possible, by organizational commitment to seeking it outside, through the innovation or customer development methods described, and this requires an organization with technology leadership capable of an anthropological appreciation of difference and practice at speaking across silos. 

Regrettably, we do not educate for, nor reward, people with polymath tendencies. 

Circular careers and super communicators

 It’s said that women’s careers follow a circular path, whereas men’s follow a straighter line. This ‘problem’ for women seems to match the ‘problem’ of finding broad technology leadership for robotics. This circular tendency is in many cases an ideal multidisciplinary training ground.

And lack of leadership is an increasing problem for robotics as the number of robotics applications and companies grows. As an emerging field, robotics does not have a deep pool of experienced talent looking for new challenges. Rich Mahoney from SRI International and Chris Moehle from NREC are both charged with overseeing the commercialization and ‘spinning off’ of robotics ventures and identify this issue as their biggest problem. 

This persists in spite of the increasing numbers of joint MBA/engineering programs being offered by Stanford, MIT, CMU, Cornell, Rice etc. and the increasing number of business accelerators at universities. Entrepreneurial experience and insight into a real world issue are still required. Historically, some places have punched well above their weight in terms of producing the next generation of technology leaders. For example, Vytas Sunspiral is a multidisciplinary thinker, a senior researcher at NASA’s Intelligent Robots Group and a graduate of Stanford’s Symbolic Systems major, which spanned Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics and Computers Science. The alumni roll includes Reid Hoffman and Marissa Mayer. 

As Rodney Brooks says, ‘these days robotics isn’t a technology problem, it’s a business model problem’. And now robotics is attracting investors, but where are all the viable startups? It takes a polymath or science super communicator to make the transition from business to technology to real world application and back again.

Sunspiral believes that multidisciplinary programs are essential for robotics innovation and leadership. The difficulty is that we identify these nexus in hindsight, rather than at the time, making them hard to do by design. So it’s only logical to look at other ways of engaging people with the same qualities. As a generalization, women tend to go towards robotics that is highly applied in the real world. This is one of the characteristics needed for a new generation of robotics business and technology leaders.

women science

There is also a good supply of women tangential to the field and able to be deployed. In spite of decades of incentives and measures aimed at getting women into the STEM ‘pipeline’, women continue to leave at a much higher rate than men. Women with degrees in STEM subjects are not proportionately represented at the higher levels, of either academic tenure track or career practitioners.

It’s well documented that women tend to move sideways, out of science and into education, communication and lower management positions. This is frequently put down to demands of family/life balance and a strong gender based desire to help. Recent studies by Boyce and Kitzinger call this leaving ‘bench science’ as a career path and they start to frame ways in which this could become a positive move, utilizing women’s strengths as professional science communicators. 

I see this as extending beyond a need for science communicators but also a way of meeting the need for technology leaders, entrepreneurs, CTOs or thinkers; people who can understand the broader social ecosystem surrounding technologies; people who care about the purpose for a technology; people who are interested in application; and people with experience in a broad range of work areas and skills; and people who communicate complex technologies well.

There is an opportunity here for organizations to systematically bring forward women as leaders, changing the popular perception of a circular career path from a negative into that of a positive accomplishment, a multidisciplinary mindset. 

In conclusion 

It’s money ball. For every problem there is an advantage to be seized. Systematically there is an opportunity for us to educate, fund and organizationally embrace multidisciplinary thinkers and communicators by developing better metrics and recognizing skills and qualifications that are not linear. This is an imperative for startups, spinoffs and commercialization. And this is an opportunity that women, given the right framework, are well positioned to fill. 

Useful links


Why isn’t my mother a mechanic?


As a child, my mother had her own overalls. She grew up stripping engines and cleaning carburettors. She was the daughter of a mechanic and master builder. Then she became a librarian.

As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up playing with punch cards and radio telescopes. My father was a physicist and astronomer. I built rockets, robots, computers and oscilloscopes with him. Then I became a film maker.

Eventually I returned to the study of rockets and robots but from the perspective of trying to understand why our sciences seemed to be gendered and what happens at the intersections of society and technology.

In Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo wrote “My mother was a computer” to launch a meditation on the gender implications of information technologies as she touches on the changing social status and meaning of occupations. For example, clerking was once a male occupation, now primarily female. And some traditionally female crafts have at times been male only guilds, eg. knitting.

In My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles takes this sentence  as her title; ‘as a synecdoche for the panoply of issues raised by the relation of Homo sapiens to Robo sapiens, humans to intelligent machines’. Hayles takes the gender and status implications of our changing technologies in society and raises them to a discussion on our kinship relations to machines, engaging with Moravec’s ‘postbiological’ future.

I love robots because they teach us what it is to be human. Robotics explores our inner space. Our automatons and artificial intelligences imitate life. So we have to work out what it is we are imitating and every choice we make building an imitation being says something about what we think we are, and what we think we aren’t.  So who we are, as well as our society, shapes our technologies, while our technologies change the world.

Hayles’ trilogy of books, Writing MachinesHow We Became Posthuman and My Mother Was a Computer describe an arc that starts at the binary opposition of embodiment and information, engages with the materiality of literary texts and then extends the ideas of ‘intermediation’ into computation. She takes Latour’s call for a turn from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ literally, as Hayle’s ‘materiality’ is the  intersection between matter and meaning, or “dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies”.

This is a call echoed by Rodney Brooks and Raffaello D’Andrea amongst others, that we start asking social questions more than technological ones in robotics. By extension, a social question is a business one because if someone needs something then they will value it. Not always as highly as they ought, but nonetheless we’ve had enough ‘build it and they will come’! While there are some technical questions (and some people) who are best in an abstract realm, there are many unanswered pragmatic ones.

The materiality of robotics is my area of study, both in the broadest sense of how do some robotic designs come in to being and not others, but in the minute details of whether or not the materials used in robotics affect the demographics of robot designers.

Robotics is gendered. While women are more equally represented these days in health, medicine and biological sciences, it is clear that engineering and the physical and computing sciences are still heavily male biased. [insert all the books, articles and reports written on gender inequality in STEM here] This hasn’t changed much over time either. And for the record, this is still the case in politics, finance and business.

I watch this trend up close in Silicon Valley and both the VC and startup worlds are heavily male dominated. It seems as though rapid innovation exacerbates innate biases at a systemic level [insert another book here]. Of course, there are many fabulous women in both startups and in robotics. Of course, some women achieve success, recognition and reward. It’s just that overall, the odds are not in your favor if you are female and you shouldn’t have to work twice as hard to overcome them.

Do you even want to do what so many men do? Maybe some women want different work lives? Maybe some women want different robots?

It’s time to talk more loudly about both gender and biology. I believe that biology plays a strong part in these differences and we risk becoming a society that refuses to talk about difference – because we want to respect everyone’s equality. Our anodyne culture makes it hard to celebrate different mindedness and different bodiedness. This is worrisome, especially as our ability to tinker with our selves increases. Let’s not do a Dr Lawrence Summers here and shoot the message because we don’t like the messenger.

There are many reasons why women are not in robotics and getting them more engaged in school is only one answer. We must simultaneously address improving the pipeline at every point right up to promotion to CEO or Board, better family life balance, more equitable pay (especially in light of women’s higher rate of p/t or interrupted work), more role models, less innate bias and finally, better value given to areas traditionally female, which will in turn allow more women to import their skills and experience into areas which are, so far, traditionally male.

My mother isn’t a mechanic, but she is a maker. She taught me kitchen chemistry and real cooking. My mother made clothing from necessity and then for pleasure. She taught me 3d modelling, design, aesthetics and problem solving skills in the process. When I was young, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I wanted to be a physicist, an astronaut, a test fighter pilot and explore outer space. 

I gave up when I entered my teens. There was no career pathway for women in space, no role models, no encouragement. That has changed now, but the deeper lesson I learned was that in the world we have unequal access to technology, by gender or by race or global location. I saw this with the spreading of computer technology and the internet. If you live in some parts of the world, you don’t have access to technology and you can’t shape the building of new technologies and it’s hard to be an innovator.

Maybe innovation needs more makers and fewer mechanics. Maybe my mother was happy never becoming a mechanic. But she never got the promotions or the pay that she deserved. And her skills as a maker are far less valued than those of a mechanic.

My siblings followed in my father’s footsteps and got PhDs in the ‘hard’ sciences. By contrast, my mother and I are just Masters, and masters of the ‘soft’ sciences. But we are also makers. And I believe that the Maker movement is one way of encouraging us to value more varied contributions to science/technology. At every level of expertise,  I would like to see more women making a robots, which in turn may lead to more interesting robotics, a robotics that is useful and appealing to the rest of the world.

See this post in International Womens Day wrap over at Robohub – your global source for news and views about robotics!

Robot Names

During 2010 and 2011, I surveyed published data from robot competitions around the world. I collected more than 2,000 unique robot names spanning a period of over 20 years. This material formed the basis of my master’s thesis  for the Digital Cultures Program at Sydney University “A Robot: Slave or Companion Species”. I have presented the work in progress as a poster at ISRE2010 in Gold Coast, Australia, HRI2011 in Lausanne, Switzerland and ARSO2011 in San Francisco, USA.







Lean methodology and technology

Lean startup methodology is the most interesting methodological shift in transferring technology to use of the century, in combination with changes in the technological scaffold that make this possible.

outline what this means?

And of course, it’s simply a combination of scientific method, sociology, or design, in business language.

What is human-robot metacommunication?

Chris Chesher, Unversity of Sydney, describes the conceptual challenges that robotics poses for media and communication studies. While this is still in press and subject to change, I found that this list is something I will want to refer to again! The transition from broadcast media to the internet and mobile media is complicated. Just as some theoretical models have emerged to understand computers, a ‘universal’ medium, the rise of robotics is going to create new layers of differentiation.

a. Robots are explicitly quasi-others, challenging traditional Humanist taboos against the agency and anthropomorphism of objects.

b. Robots have physical particularity, presence and autonomous activity, in contrast to other media such as printed, audio and screen-based media, which tend to be positioned as transparent and standardised and mass-produced media.

c. Robots use multimodal elements (movements, sound, screens, ’emotion’) that aspire to create meanings that combine several media (facial expressions, movement relative to personal space, speech and so on).

d. Robots work with greater degrees of feedback than traditional computers. Robots perceive and interpret user actions, and modify their behavior within cybernetic loops.

I think that there may need also to be a separation between the metacommunication of robot as human proxy and the very specific and asymmetric human-robot and robot-human communication. Chris Chesher is one of the few theorists I’m aware of who attempts to deconstruct what a robot communication is.

[image of Waseda Talker 2007 – one of a series replicating human vocal production ]

Secret Life of Pronouns


“The Secret Life of Pronouns” by James W. Pennebaker is a book I wish I’d read before finishing my thesis. It makes a strong case for words having the power to reflect changes in our society and perhaps even be transformative. Sometimes highly relevant work is just too many disciplines away from your research area for it to register. (I felt the same way on discovering the work that Joanna J. Bryson was doing in the AI and philosophy areas on robot ethics and robots as slaves.)

Why was this relevant to me? My thesis was that analyzing the names we gave robots, particularly research robots in competitions rather than consumer products, illustrated the underlying social relations we have with robots and my conclusion was that we treat robots as slaves based on robot names having most similarity to 18th century slave names, rather than pet names, gadget names or personal names. My background is cultural theory, which analyzes objects and relations as texts and communications.

James W. Pennebaker is a social psychologist, the Regents Centennial Liberal Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and highly cited author of 10 books and almost 300 scientific articles. The Secret Life of Pronouns describes a large long term research project that connects the way we use small functional words with the way we behave and are positioned in the world, our ‘social and psychological processes’.

“The smallest, most commonly used, most forgettable words serve as windows into our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The ways people use pronouns, articles, and other everyday words are linked to their personality, honesty, social skills, and intentions…. Using computerized text analyses on hundreds of thousands of letters, poems, books, blogs, Tweets, conversations, and other texts, it is possible to begin to read people’s hearts and minds in ways they can’t do themselves.”

The Secret Life of Pronouns is one of the new breed of big data scientific research projects. Using computation power and masses of data, the researchers are able to transform subtle social differences into significant correlations and robust data sets. We still argue over whether or not gender or class exist, or more precisely, we usually agree that they exist but risk being labelled polemical when we attempt to label something as gender or class related. So many other factors are more overt and specific to the group/people.

While there is always a trade off between large scale quantitative research and in depth qualitative work, it is very compelling to be able to say that something was studied over millions of people or thousands of cities. If a finding is true across all of these diverse groups then we may start to see the real nature of gender, class and other culturally constructed identities. We might be able to see if things change, in which ways and whether or not changes are beneficial, although that is still a highly subjective measure!

Some of Pennebaker’s findings include that women and men really do use language differently, and that most authors can be identified as male or female regardless of their characters’ genders. Even author authenticity has a good chance of being detected, whether Beatles songs or the Federalist papers. How couples or groups relate to each other shows in word use mirroring and can predict longevity of relationships and productivity of work teams. Ultimately, social cohesion is reflected in language styles, which like accents, can be highly localized and a subtle indicator of status and group belonging. People seem to be very good at utilizing these communicative techniques without thinking about it.

“The magic of this project is not about the links between income distributions and social patterns in cities. Rather, it shows how words in the most mundane of places can reveal important information about a community’s social ties. All groups, whether families, work groups, companies, or entire cities, leave trails of their social and psychological lives behind in the words their members use in communicating with each other. Words are one of the human-made elements that connect our thoughts and ideas across people. By tracking our words, we get a sense of the social fabric.” [p.243 ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns’ by Pennebaker, J. W. Bloomsbury Press NY 2011]

Robots, Code and Stuff

FAKE GRIMLOCK is my new favorite reading (along with The Bloggess and xkcd), because what he says makes a lot of sense. It also drips with sarcasm, awesomeness and blood. Many technology luminaries (like Eric Ries, Brad Feld, Fred Wilson and CNN) have noticed that FAKE GRIMLOCK carves through all the cream and gets straight to the coffee.

FAKE GRIMLOCK connects code and effect in a way reminiscent of Latour’s ‘Where are the Missing Masses, sociology of a few mundane objects’. Latour’s call has become a slogan for the need to reinsert the matter or ‘stuff’ of science and society back into a social constructivist STS or sociology [1]. Code is an object and objects shape us as much as we shape them.

We are changing society right here – punching code through the walls of the world. But all too often the vision is just personal or commercial success.


Roadblocks of gender, race and class are still huge. Sometimes technological advancement is just making bigger roadblocks. Startup philosophy, which emphasizes the individual, is often powerless before huge areas of fail. We aren’t all giant robot dinosaurs and sometimes we don’t share the same visions. For example, feminism is a great conversation killer, because not a lot has changed in last 50 years. Seriously – this 1991 MIT report by Ellen Spertus is still accurate. That’s depressing. It’s great to celebrate awesome women engineers and ceos, but important to point out the systematic obstacles women face in the tech and startup worlds.

Fake Grimlock’s irresistible awesome is up against some pretty immoveable objects, but at least reading @fakegrimlock makes me feel like a raging fury in a good way.

1. Latour, Bruno 1992. Where are the missing masses, sociology of a few mundane artefacts application/pdf icon In Shaping Technology-Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker and John Law (editors), MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. pp. 225-259, 1992 [new expanded and revised version of article (35). Republication in the reader Johnson, Deborah J., and Jameson M Wetmore, eds. Technology and Society, Building Our Sociotechnical Future. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008 pp. 151-180]