Robots have been to the moon, to Mars and even, in the form of vacuum cleaners, to shopping malls. But where they haven't been, and where they might be most useful, is in our homes, says Cynthia Breazeal, one of the nation’s leading roboticists.
“For robots, the final frontier isn’t space; it’s your living room,” says Breazeal, associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of MIT's Robotics Life Group. “I dream of a future where robots will be partners for people -- being companions for us and enriching our lives.”
Breazeal, who spoke yesterday at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), sees a new range of applications for robots: they can comfort the sick and the elderly, be companions to children and adults, and offer a variety of entertainment in the home. Traditionally, she says, robots were designed to operate as remotely as possible from people, often performing tasks in dangerous places, such as space. But she designs robots to closely interact with people.
Breazeal started her work in robotics as an MIT graduate student, when she created Kismet -- a small robot whose facial expressions and baby-like words seem human. Breazeal called upon infant social development, psychology and evolution, as well as computer science and engineering, to build Kismet, who interacts with and even learns from people.
Later, as a professor at MIT, Breazeal and her students focused on Leonardo, a more advanced robot they built with the prominent Stan Winston Studio, which created the dinosaurs in the film Jurassic Park. Leonardo combines the studio’s artistry and expertise in creating compelling animated characters with state-of-the-art research in socially intelligent robots. The robot embodies art, science and invention, and was thus named after Leonardo DaVinci, the Renaissance scientist, inventor and artist.
“Leonardo is the Stradivarius of expressive robots,” says Breazeal.
When she was a child, Breazeal saw the movie Star Wars. It was the first time she saw emotionally expressive robots and she was inspired to learn as much as she could about them. Now robots are part of her daily life at the MIT Media Lab, a leading center for robotics. She was a robotics consultant for the Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and has done a promotional tour with Star War’s director George Luckas.
“Star Wars was the film that inspired my career, so to tour with George Luckas gave me sense that my life had come full circle,” she says.
Breazeal recently appeared with her robot Leonardo on Alan Alda’s PBS television series Scientific American. Her first book, Designing Sociable Robots, was published by The MIT Press in 2002. Recognition of her creativity as a designer includes exhibits of her work at museums such as the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
Breazeal’s lecture at NJIT was part of a month-long series of events celebrating Women’s History Month and sponsored jointly by the NJIT Technology and Society Forum, the Albert Dorman Honors College and the Lillian Gilbreth Colloquium.
Breazeal envisions a bright future for socially designed robots. "They could become learning companions for children or in-home helpers for the elderly,” she says. “There are many possible applications, and my hope is that we’ll someday bridge that final frontier and use robots in our homes.”