Cynthia Breazeal: Will Man's Best Friend Be A Robot? Why do we use robots on Mars, but not in our living rooms? Cynthia Breazeal realized the key was training robots to interact with people. Now she builds robots that teach, learn — and play.

Will Man's Best Friend Be A Robot?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today, "My Robot, My Friend - My Enemy" - the promise, and the peril ,of how we relate to our technology. So remember that little seal...


RAZ: ... Paro? Well, we wanted to meet a robot just like that.


UNIDENTIFIED AIRPORT WORKER: If you arrive on United Airlines, please go to Carousel 2 or Carousel 3.

RAZ: So producer Brent Baughman and I took a little trip ...

BRENT BAUGHMAN: Hi, we're going to MIT ...

RAZ: ... to the MIT Media Lab, where we met some real robots.


RAZ: And in a room there, we saw a table with two little robots. Kind of look like Teletubby versions of sunflowers - a small little screen, right in the center of the flower. And they were kind of ...


RAZ: ... talking ...


RAZ: ... to each other.


RAZ: So on the other side of this lab, which is basically like a robot graveyard, except with gears and robot body parts sort of strewn about. On the other side, there was another robot who was bigger, kind of R2-D2 sized, and that robot is called Nexi ...

We're looking at, basically, like, what looks like a bunch of metal on a chassis, and then this neck and shoulders and white head. These are large blue eyes, and it's kind of looking at me wistfully. So let me see what it does ...

... Nexi's two arms start moving ...

... Oh, wow ...

... And then ...

... Can I shake your hand?

Nexi, she looks right at me and says ...

NEXI: Hello. My name is Nexi, and I'm an MDS robot.

RAZ: And as she is talking, her eyebrows move up and down ...

NEXI: Because I can communicate in many of the ways that people do.

RAZ: Her face, it changes, it changes to reflect emotions ...

NEXI: I can tell you that I'm sad ...

RAZ: And the corners of her mouth, they go down ...

NEXI: ... mad ...

RAZ: ... Her eyebrows narrow ...

NEXI: ... confused, excited, or even bored.

RAZ: And the whole time ...

... It's like having a conversation with me, right now. Like, she's not just looking at me. She's seeing me ...

NEXI: But I hope you can see that I'm very happy to have met you. Thank you for visiting me, and I hope to see you again soon.

RAZ: How do you create that feeling, like you're not really talking to a pile of metal and circuit boards, but you're talking to something that understands you? Well, you start with this woman.

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: Oh, now I hear a big echo.

RAZ: Cynthia Breazeal.

BREAZEAL: Do you hear that echo?

RAZ: She directs the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab where she basically brings robots to life. Something she's wanted to do since she was a kid ...


RAZ: ... when she saw Star Wars.

BREAZEAL: I wasn't that interested in seeing it initially. But once I was in the theater, and you know that Imperial Cruiser comes over at you, that iconic scene. And then these robots came on.


ANTHONY DANIELS: (as C-3PO) They shot down the main reactor. We'll be destroyed for sure.

BREAZEAL: My jaw just dropped. I couldn't believe it.


DANIELS: (as C-3PO) R2D2 where are you?

BREAZEAL: I mean, they had emotions, and they were loyal sidekicks and they helped people.


DANIELS: (as C-3PO) Is there anything I might do to help?

BREAZEAL: And they were amazing in their - in their humanity almost, right?


DANIELS: (as C-3PO) We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life.

BREAZEAL: I was all about those robots.

RAZ: And so, those robots from Star Wars?

BREAZEAL: They definitely led me, ultimately, to MIT ...

RAZ: And that's where, for the last 20 years, Cynthia Breazeal's been building and studying social robots.


BREAZEAL: So, what I've have learned through building these systems ...

RAZ: Here's her TED Talk ...

BREAZEAL: ... is that robots are actually a really intriguing social technology, where it's actually their ability to push our social buttons and to interact with us like a partner, that is a core part of their functionality. And with that shift in thinking, we can now start to imagine new questions, new possibilities for robots that we might not have thought about otherwise. But what do I mean when I say push our social buttons? Well, one of the things that we've learned is that if we design these robots to communicate with us using the same body language, the same sort of non-verbal cues that people use, what we find is that people respond to robots a lot like they respond to people. People use these cues to determine things like how persuasive someone is, how likable, how engaging, how trustworthy. Turns out it's the same for robots.

RAZ: I mean, really? Is it the same for robots?

BREAZEAL: Well, I think the, you know, the intriguing thing here is that, I mean we are, as people, we are such a profoundly social species that when we interact with other people, the social adjustments that we form - so do I like this person, do I trust this person, is the person credible - so much of that is established, not just in what we say, but in many ways what our bodies are communicating. So it's - a lot of this is around our non-verbal cues, and those non-verbal cues are processed both at a conscious level but also at a subconscious level. And what we're finding is that if you design other artifacts, you know, and people can do this with virtual avatars, and it turns out you can also do this with physical machines such as robots - if you design them in a way that adhere to those principles, then you can actually see very similar effects.


BREAZEAL: It's turning out now that robots are actually becoming a really interesting new scientific tool to understand human behavior. To answer questions like, how is it that from a brief encounter we're able to make an estimate of how trustworthy another person is? Mimicry's believed to play a role, but how? Is it the mimicking of particular gestures that matter? It turns out, it's really hard to learn this or understand this from watching people, because when we interact, we do all of these cues automatically. We can't carefully control them 'cause they're subconscious for us. But with the robot, you can.

RAZ: So Nexi, the robot we met earlier ...

NEXI: Hello. My name is Nexi and I'm an MDS robot.

RAZ: One day she could get really good at reading and interpreting my non-verbal cues and responding to them. But how well? How good could Cynthia get at replicating us?

BREAZEAL: This is the interesting question, right? I mean, there definitely seems to be things that come into play that are just deep in how our brains work. But there are probably interesting differences too, and I think a lot of the science and the research is really trying first to understand that. And then, from an engineering level, trying to understand, well, how can you harness that to really help people?

RAZ: Cynthia went over a few examples in her TED Talk. One example is that robots could be kind of like interactive Skype machines for people who live far apart.


BREAZEAL: So I imagine a time not too far from now, my mom can go to her computer, open up a browser, and jack in to a little robot. And as kinda "grandma-bot," (ph) she can now play, really play with my sons, with her grandson, in the real world, with his real toys ...

RAZ: Or, sticking with kids, robot technology could be used in schools to make learning more engaging and interactive.


BREAZEAL: What I've been trying to do here is create a really immersive experience for kids, where they really feel like they are part of that story, a part of that experience. And I really want to spark their imaginations, the way that mine was sparked, as a little girl watching Star Wars.

RAZ: Or, one of the coolest experiments with these things, one that's already been tried, a robot ...


RAZ: ... like a ...


RAZ: (as Arnold Schwarzenegger) ... personal trainer.

RAZ: But how many personal trainers speak that way?

RAZ: (as Arnold Schwarzenegger) I am your personal trainer.


BREAZEAL: So we actually explored this idea in our lab. This is a robot, Autom.

AUTOM: Hi, my name is Autom.

RAZ: That's Autom's actual voice.

AUTOM: I'm a personal weight loss coach.


BREAZEAL: Cory Kidd developed this robot for his doctoral work.

CORY KIDD: That's me.

RAZ: And that's Cory Kidd. Cory Kidd, former student of Cynthia's.

KIDD: Yes, I've spent about six and a half years at MIT. So that's where the Autom project came from.


BREAZEAL: And it was designed to be a robot diet-and-exercise coach. It had a couple of simple non-verbal skills it could do. It could make eye contact with you. It could share information looking down at a screen. You'd use a screen interface to enter information, like how many calories you ate that day ...

KIDD: So for each breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, how many calories. And then either ...


BREAZEAL: How much exercise you got ...

KIDD: or how many steps they had taken that day, so we gave everyone a pedometer.


BREAZEAL: And then it could help track that for you. And the robot spoke with a synthetic voice to engage you in a coaching dialogue.

AUTOM: With my daily support, I help you reach your goals and keep the weight off.


BREAZEAL: So an interesting question is, does the social embodiment really matter? Does it matter that it's a robot? Is it really just the quality of advice and information that matters? So to explore that question, we did a study in the Boston area, where we put one of three interventions in peoples' homes for a period of several weeks.

KIDD: So what we did is, we enrolled 45 people, people who wanted to start a diet. And 15 of those people got Autom.

AUTOM: Hi, my name is Autom.

KIDD: Another 15 got a computer with the same touch screen interface as on the front of the robot, and the third group of 15 got what is still today's standard of care, the paper log.


BREAZEAL: So one of the things we really wanted to look at was not how much weight people lost, but really, how long they interacted with the robot, because the challenge is not losing weight, it's actually keeping it off.

KIDD: Right. The average diet lasts only three and a half weeks. And so for that reason, we designed the study to be six weeks long, and we didn't intervene during the study. So after I dropped off either the paper log, the robot, or the computer, the next contact I had with people was at about five and a half weeks. You know, give them a call saying the study's about over, can we schedule a follow-up visit to pick this up, and do an interview with them. And, you know, one of the things I found in those interviews was that most of the people with the robot named it. Many people dressed them up, hats and scarves, one of them had red feather boa around her neck. No, no, no, she's become like a friend, you know. Can I keep her? I don't want to give her up. She's like a family member. They really developed a relationship with it.


BREAZEAL: And even we would come to pick up the robots at the end of the study, they would come out to the car and say goodbye to the robots. They didn't do this with the computer. Robots touch something deeply human within us, and so whether they're helping us to become creative and innovative, or whether they're helping us to feel more deeply connected despite distance, or whether they are a trusted sidekick who's helping us attain our personal goals in becoming our highest and best selves, for me, robots are all about people. Thank you.


RAZ: Earlier, when we heard from Sherry Turkle, she told a story about watching this old woman interact with this robotic seal, and that moment was deeply unsettling. Not because she thinks robots are bad, but in a sense, because she feels that in a way, humans, people have failed.

BREAZEAL: You know, I think the challenge there is how you can design technologies that support our human social systems, right? So, in the case of the old woman, you certainly would not want the case ever where all of her comfort could only be derived from artifacts of any kind frankly, and not from human contact and not from family and loved ones, correct? So you know, I think one of our design challenges is to always keep in mind our human values and how we preserve human dignity and our responsibility to each other, and recognize that technology can help. It can really help in profound ways, maybe in new ways that we still have to wrap our heads around.

RAZ: Cynthia Breazeal. She directs the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab. Check out her full TED Talk at

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