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ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Entrepreneur, designer and artist Caterina Fake was one of the early pioneers of the Web. She was one of the first online graphic designers and a blogger before people thought it was normal to post personal information online.
Fake has spent her career creating services that change the way we use the Web—photo-sharing service Flickr, acquired by Yahoo; decision-making website Hunch, acquired by eBay; and now Findery, an app for discovering art, history and notable destinations all around you.
Findery, available on the Web, iOS and Android, is for storytelling. People can add “notes” about certain locations—for instance, detailing some history of a particular building. That lets others who are traveling or just exploring their surroundings learn things that might not be in a guidebook.
“Notemaps,” or a string of notes on a similar topic, are also a way for users to share their journeys through photos, words, and location information. One notemap called “In Love” is a collection of stories about romantic journeys contributed by Findery users.
Fake said that all her businesses have something in common—they combine technology with art and community, and put the people first. And while there are now screens almost everywhere we look, Fake doesn’t want people to become lost in their technology, rather use the tools and devices to amplify the present world around them.
Now with notes in 196 countries and a recently launched Android app, Findery is hoping to become a new way for people to discover the community around them through photos, community and shared stories.
Making Things Beautiful And Useful
RW: Can you talk more about how you’ve been developing for the intersection of arts and technology? What inspires you to make that connection?
CF: I’m a liberal arts major. I studied art and I studied English. I almost went to grad school to study Renaissance literature. I was trained as an artist. I was trained as an oil painter. I’ve always had an affinity for it.
I came out here as a recent college graduate. I had always had an interest in computers, and I’ve always been online—that was before 1994, before there was much activity online. I had been working as a painter in NYC as a fine artist, then I moved out here [to San Francisco] and I felt myself to be unemployable. But I had this skill in aesthetics that I could translate into Web design. I got into it really by accident.
I carried forward these tendencies I already have. I carried it into this new realm of technology and the Internet, and it became a career. I was a very early blogger also. I started in 1998, really early on, and that was a thriving community.
I always felt that was a very important part of the Internet, that people tell their stories, that there be a multiplicity of voices online and be an avenue for people to connect themselves. That’s really been something that we’ve focused on throughout all of my career. It’s been very effective for companies who build these types of communities that are arts related, and about storytelling.
Sketching Out An Online Vision
RW: Flickr was your first company, right? Can you talk about how you went from being a painter and designer to being a technical entrepreneur?
CF: In many ways it was being in the right place at the right time.
I started doing CD-ROM educational title design. This was back in the days of CD-ROMs, before the Web really took off. I got really lucky because I was living in New York and had gotten a job as a temp in the IT department at Columbia University in early 1990s. And somebody showed me a Mosaic browser, right when it came out.
I had been online already and been very active in the bulletin-board days of the Internet. I was very attracted to and interested in all of this blooming technology. So I was in a good place at a good time. There was such a small community—there were so few people working in the industry at the time. It kind of felt like there were 300 people working in Web design at the time. I had spent time in online communities like The Well, and it just kind of evolved naturally from that.
I did Web design, I taught myself HTML and to write basic code, I published zines, I published a blog, and put up my own website. I was on Geocities. There were a lot of really wonderful, early online communities like that.
It was in ’95 that I joined Organic, one of the very first Web development shops. I took it from there. It wasn’t an obvious path. It was one of those things that if you just keep your mind open, you can look for opportunities around you.
But I don’t think my parents were very optimistic about my post-college opportunities.
RW: Did you set out to build an image sharing platform that just happened to become one of the most popular photo-sharing sites on the Web?
CF: We were hoping it would be successful, but we didn’t really have any idea how successful it would be. There’s a lot of work that went into it, a lot of luck that went into it, a lot of things happening with just the general forces of the Internet at the time. This was 10 years ago now, and the timing was just right.
It was kind of like, blogging was seen as this weird fringe behavior. “Why would you want to put a picture of yourself online? That’s so weird.” That was changing. Friendster had a lot to do with it. In the early days, getting people getting over that hump of having a profile of yourself online. It was kind of a new idea.
The year that we launched Flickr [in 2004]—it was the first year that the majority of smartphones were equipped with a digital camera. It was also the year that more than 50% percent of all households had broadband Internet, so you could actually download a photo. So that was a huge thing.
A lot of things happened around that time. Another thing is that the cost of storage had been falling year after year. It used to be very expensive to operate a server, and that was dropping. It was a perfect storm of different factors … that made it the perfect time for Flickr.
Looking at the current landscape, there are screens in everyone’s cars, in dashboards, on planes, the apple watch, google Glass, you can kind of see what’s going on is that people are no longer connected to, we still have all our phones, but we’re going to be liberated from our phones. And you know the sense of traveling with you is where things are going next.
RW: Do you think that perfect storm of factors helped with the virality of Flickr? Do you think it’s harder to go viral on the Internet now, 10 years later?
CF: In some ways, going viral is no longer the same kind of challenge it was. In some ways it’s harder, and in some ways it’s easier.
There are all these different devices you have, and all these different contacts. The challenge has always been tapping your social network, those challenges have been made easier.
But then, there are many social networks, there are a lot more developments going on. There’s more noise—in that aspect, it’s harder.
RW: Can you talk a little bit about why Findery is so unique and how you’re hoping people use the app?
CF: We’ve really tried to do a couple things: We thought that location-based services were really centered around ratings, reviews and recommendations. So really about “Where should I have dinner?” or “Show me what to do here.”
We wanted to get away from that sense of place.
The thing we really want to try to do is bring out the meaning and history of a place. All other aspects of the place that don’t have to do with business transactions. Bringing a travel mindset local.
You know that famous slide with Steve Jobs, at the end of one of this last presentations, he was standing in front of a sign that said “Technology and Liberal Arts.” That’s kind of where we feel we are. Here’s the history of a place, here’s the sociology of a place, here’s what people are saying about this place. Here are people’s contributions.
That’s what we feel we’re really good at. If you look at the companies over the years that I have been either a founder or on a board or an investor in, like Flickr, Etsy, or Kickstarter, the great common thread in them is about creativity and telling stories.
Those are some of our particular strengths and what make us different from Yelp or other things.
What’s really interesting about technology in general, when we started this company, it was very clear that things were going to be on mobile, and that mobile was what we should be developing for. Now wearables are becoming a reality. Screens are now going to be in the dashboard of your car. Screens not even confined to your handheld device anymore.
We have this space that is really expanding to include all of these screens in places that are moving, in the back of a cab, or in front of you on the airplane. As you’re flying over Greenland, wouldn’t it be interesting to see, what’s this place like now? We are designing for all of these products that are just rolling out. So I’m super excited for us. We’re in a good position to be on all of these mobile screens.
Where Technology Meets Liberal Arts
RW: What were some of the most important lessons that you’ve learned after founding multiple startups? How are you applying them to Findery?
Things change constantly. I don’t think that any entrepreneur can keep doing the same thing over and over. You have to know what experience to carry forward, and what experience to leave behind.
I think one of the big challenges is actually cultivating beginners minds and making sure you’re still open to the world and continue to see new things. You can actually get jaded. You can stop seeing things that are new. You can start fearing failure. Those are the things an entrepreneur needs—an open mind and the ability to see the world with new eyes.
That’s the challenge of being an entrepreneur.
RW: How do you think Yahoo is running Flickr? Did you ever anticipate its current form?
CF: It’s funny. It’s like when your company has been acquired by another company, you can care for it for a certain amount of time, then you have to let go. You can compare it to NASA and the space shuttle. You can care for it as much as you can, then the rocket ship goes into outer space, and there it is.
I know exactly what I would do with Flickr right now, but I’m not running it anymore. So from my perspective, I’ve launched a rocket. You just have to hope that all of the stuff you put into it before it launched, works.
The thing that’s always been the strongest thing about Flickr is the community. So long as the people continue to be supported, that’s the important part.
RW: My editor Owen Thomas pointed to me about a blog post you wrote, the concept of Biz Dev 2.0. Is that something that’s translated over the years? Companies opening up their API and allowing other companies to build off it?
CF: Earlier in the conversation I was mentioning that being present on all these different platforms, being on dashboards or wearables, none of that would really be possible without an API.
That still holds true now more than ever. When we were developing products when I wrote that back in 2006, there were even fewer places that your data could appear. They’ve just multiplied. When we started Flickr, it was a pretty simple process.
Since we’ve developed Findery, we started on the Web and mobile Web, and we had an iOS version, and now an Android version. It’s just multiplied. We were pretty much developing for a single platform 10 years ago, and you can’t do that anymore.
You can’t just be constrained to one. I think that that’s even more true than ever.
Being Present In The World
RW: So what’s next for Findery? What will success look like?
CF: One of the things that was really great is that we have an intern that said Findery changed her experience of the world. When she was walking, instead of looking down at her phone, she was being present to the world. Technology can remove us from the people and places around us—you can be going into some Internet world in the sky instead of being present where you’re standing.
If we’re successful, it seems like an irony for a technology company, but it would be to make people present in places where they are and the places around them
The people on the bus, or people walking down the street, the lines in the pavement and the weather, all the stuff that’s around you. Not be so involved in the virtual world. Which sounds very old-world now. That’s a term circa 1999.
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Mobile SEO differs from desktop and its importance its growing rapidly.
The post Up Close @ SMX: Making Mobile SEO Perform For You – Design, Approach & Speed appeared first on Search Engine Land.
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Up Close @ SMX: Making Mobile SEO Perform For You – Design, Approach …
Search Engine Land
up-close-at-smx-east-2014. Mobile SEO is very different from desktop SEO; therefore, ensuring you take the right approach to implementation is critical to success. This was the overarching mobile message at SMX East in New York this past week. I was …
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Dear Content Marketers, Have I told you (lately) that I love you? Seriously! Content marketing has taken the elusive concept of “thought leadership” and transformed it into a prescriptive, clear-cut process. You equip prospects with the helpful information they need and, at the same…
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B2B Content Marketers: Are You Making These 5 Common SEO Mistakes?
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can we be content marketers who are also savvy about our SEO? Can we squeeze a few more delicious drops out of all our content efforts? Can we be brave enough to look back and honestly ask, “Did I get all of the possible SEO benefit out of my content?”.
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Mark this moment: Watching people play video games has become a big business, with Amazon, Google, Disney, and others vying for a piece of the action.
Call it livestream gaming: Top players record themselves playing popular titles and delivering commentary—or compete against each other in big, live, arena-style events.
By turning video games from a solitary living-room obsession into shared events, livestream gaming is letting advertisers tap into a hard-to-reach demographic of mostly young men.
The Game Is Afoot
That means a huge influx of money into the video-game world: It’s changing from a hardware-and-software business into a Hollywood-like media operation, complete with its own celebrities, agents, studios, and networks.
The big event in livestream gaming was Amazon.com’s announcement that it will acquire Twitch, a site which specializes in livestream gaming videos, for a cool $970 million, after rumors that Google’s YouTube might be interested in buying it, too.
Gaming as a spectator sport has already attracted audiences of millions of online users, most of whom watch it on gaming-dedicated YouTube channels or on Twitch. It’s no longer an online subculture: For many teens, it is their mass media.
And the wars to capitalize on livestream gaming and its personalities is underway. Maker Studios, a Disney-owned Web network that operates like a talent agency for popular YouTube stars, has just partnered with one of YouTube’s top gaming channels, The Diamond Minecart.
The Diamond Minecart joins two other Maker-represented gaming channels, PewDiePie and Stampylonghead. That means Maker Studios now has the top three most-subscribed gaming channels on YouTube. And it means Disney and Google have partnered up against Amazon and Twitch. It’s on like Donkey Kong!
Livestream gaming grew along with YouTube. Video-game streams were just one more genre of YouTube’s early bedroom-webcam confessionals. What else would teens talk into the camera about?
While Twitch specializes in gaming, the topic is no stranger to YouTube. PewDiePie, YouTube’s most-subscribed channel, is the online-video home of Felix Kjellberg, a 24-year-old Swede. He has 19 million subscribers, but he’s just at the apex of a community of gamers on YouTube who garner massive fan followings by uploading videos of themselves playing games.
Some advertisers are already tapping into their popularity.
Kjellberg recently agreed to appear in a promotion for Hollywood horror movie As Above, So Below. The film’s marketers sent Kjellberg to Paris to record himself looking for missing keys within a haunted catacomb, complete with zombies and live cockroaches. It works particularly well because of the similarities to the horror-themed video games he often plays.
Video-game publisher Ubisoft partnered with popular YouTube comedy duo Smosh to create a song in 2012 for the release of Assassin’s Creed 3. The accompanying music video now has a total of 54 million views.
In 2012, first person shooter video game Halo released Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a science fiction action show, on YouTube channel Machinima Prime. The show has since been added onto Netflix’s roster of content.
Entering The Arena
Livestream gaming was born on the Internet—but it’s jumping into the physical world.
Where livestream gaming involves posting videos, esports—short for “electronic sports”—involves quasi-athletic video-game competitions, often staged in big venues before live audiences and, increasingly, broadcast on television.
In October 2013, video-game publisher Riot Games held its League of Legends World Championships at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The arena was sold out, and 32 million gaming fans watched the competition online.
In July, ESPN, the Disney-owned cable network, broadcast The International, a tournament which featured an online battle-arena-style game called DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) 2, with an $11 million prize.
So what can we expect for the future of livestream gaming? We’re already seeing Disney, Google, and Amazon getting into the mix, putting down eye-popping amounts of money into acquisitions and poaching top YouTube gamers.
Google and Disney’s interests are obvious, since they are big sellers of advertising with a keen interest in teenage audiences. Amazon’s interest in Twitch came as a surprise to many—but it, too, has an increasing interest in video games, thanks to its Kindle tablets and its in-house game studios, as well as in online advertising, where it hopes to challenge Google.
Others are likely to pile into the market now. The big winners may be anyone who loves video games. Heck, you don’t even have to play them anymore. You can just lean back and watch.
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Making Better SEO Reports For Your Clients
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Ah, the SEO report. Sometimes the bane of our existence. Some agencies spend the majority of their time creating monthly detailed monstrosities, while others might send quick, white-labeled exports. Meanwhile, smart companies (like Seer) look for ways …
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Don’t just assume why your content is or isn’t working – to really understand what’s working and what’s not, marketers need to dig in, get their hands dirty, and ask the right questions.
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ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Cynthia Breazeal has been called the mother of personal robotics, and it’s easy to see why. For more than ten years, she has brought forth robotic life that is designed to express, gesture, and relate to humans.
It’s a far cry from most of modern robotics, which is about utilizing robots for production and labor. Her earliest creations, the saucer-eyed Kismet and cuddly Leonardo, aren’t much for manual labor, but they can emote and respond to emotions almost like people.
At the end of the day, Breazeal’s work is about using simulated life to help humans make connections in our own lives. In a TED talk, she recounted a project she’d conducted during her work at the MIT Media Lab in which she tried to help people eat healthy food. Some test subjects received a paper notepad, others a computer, and the last third a responsive robot named Autom. People trusted Autom the most because they related to it as a personal assistant.
Breazeal’s latest and most groundbreaking robot is Jibo, a personal robot designed to live in your home with your family. With an expressive facial screen and a youthful voice, Jibo suggests a friendly helper, evocative of big screen robot fantasies. Since Jibo’s GoFundMe launch on July 16, it has raised more than $1.5 million—only about 15 times its original $100,000 funding goal.
I talked to Breazeal about her work in personal robotics and how she thinks robots can help us to better understand humanity.
Our Robots, Ourselves
RW: What inspired your shift from working with space robotics to social robotics?
Cynthia Breazeal: When I was an undergraduate, I was at UC Santa Barbara, and at the time they had a Center for Excellence in Robotics. At the time I was fascinated by space and I wanted to be an astronaut.
To be an astronaut I knew I’d have to get a PhD. in a relevant field, so I decided that it would be robotics. It just happened to fortuitously turn out that the year I was applying to graduate schools, Rod Brooks [founder of Rethink Robotics], who was my PhD advisor, had just started a program in developing planetary microrovers.
He wrote this famous paper—that there was a movie of the same title—Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System. And it was all about advocating for, rather than sending out a few large teleoperated rovers like we did to the moon, if you really wanted to explore Mars you needed to send many small, much more autonomous robots because of the lag of the signal from the Earth going to Mars was hours so the robots would have to have more autonomy in order to be effective explorers.
That was the project that was available when I applied for graduate school. That’s how I really got my start in autonomous robots. When I was at UC Santa Barbara it was more about manufacturing robots. That was my first exposure to biological inspired autonomous robots, robots that are really inspired after creatures rather than machines. And for me it was like, you know, “Oh my God, Star Wars is really happening. I have to be a part of this!” (laughs)
Rod is credited with shifting NASA’s stance to smaller microrovers, too, so of course it was a tremendously successful project. When NASA landed Sojourner on Mars I remember, as a graduate student, watching this huge success for all of robotics and thinking, “OK, we have robots we’ll send into the ocean. We’ll send them into volcanos. And now we’ll send them to Mars. But they’re not in our homes. What’s up with that? Where are the robots?”
It occurred that me that the human environment and people, in so many ways, are so much more complex than navigating in environments where there’s nothing around you. And then I started thinking, “Well, what would it really take to have a robot be able to live with people? To have anyone be able to interact with them?”
Social robotics is very much the analog of when we built these extremely expensive computers and only experts knew how to use them. We know how to build extremely expensive robots that only experts know how to use. So that mind shift of what happens when they go into every home and every desk. So that was it and that was social robotics and that was, “How do people naturally want to try to interact with machines?”
Well, people naturally anthropomorphize things that sense the world on their own, make decisions on their own, and exhibit this autonomy. So given that this is how people naturally want to make sense of autonomous robots, that’s how we need to support them. They very naturally try to anthropomorphize these robots, try to understand them as not being governed by laws of physics like things, but by states of mind, beliefs, intents, desires, emotions.
That was the impetus for social robotics. The final frontier of robotics is actually the human environment and robots need to be social in order to engage with us in a natural way, to be part of our lives.
Social Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Humanoid
RW: What differentiates a “social robot” from other humanoid robots?
CB: A humanoid robot typically refers very much to the morphology of the machine. So to have legs, arms, a head, basically the same physical attributes as a human. A lot of the impetus or motivation behind humanoid robots was that you could have robots in a human environment.
We have engineered so much of this environment for our morphology. If you built a robot that could basically be of human stature and size then it could also use all the tools and navigate the spaces around it as well. That was the original rationale behind humanoid robots.
You can have humanoids that are purely functional. They can carry things and never have to interact with people. Social robots are really about robots that engage people in this interpersonal dimension. Social robots don’t have to be humanoid at all, as it turns out, as long as they interact with us in this social, emotional way.
These are two distinct research areas, but they overlap as well.
RW: How have human expectations of robot connections changed since you first broke out with Kismet 10 years ago? Back then, we didn’t have jokes about talking to Siri or the iPhone. Now, many of us expect to have a digital companion at all times. How has the demand in your audience evolved?
CB: Yeah, you know it’s really fascinating. I think one of the challenges of robots, especially personal robots, is that it is a technology people have fantasized about, written books about, and made movies about long before the technology ever really existed. People have always had really profound expectations of what robots could be, from the extremely human-like social to the superhuman to the completely mundane—I mean, all over the map.
Surely all those images are still all around us. You still have the cultural joke about the robot overlords. They’re just part of our culture.
I do think what’s fascinating since the mobile computing revolution is just, because people are used to having little computers in their pockets and with them everywhere, people now have a much greater familiarity with technology in general. Everybody has a smartphone, everybody understands downloading apps.
Because of that, I think there’s probably a greater receptivity in terms of expectation that robots clearly are coming very soon. If I’m talking to my smartphone like Siri, clearly the robots must be coming soon.
It’s funny, I’ve talked to a lot of people about that. It’s almost as if they say, “I grew up with the Jetsons dreaming of robots, and what I got instead was a smartphone. But finally the robots might be actually coming.” I think there’s a real anticipation that personal robots are really happening, they’re going to come into our homes in a much bigger way. I think that’s what’s changed because of the mobile computing revolution.
An Electronic Helping Hand
RW: Your robots Kismet and Leonardo are pre-verbal. How do robots that can understand but not speak English help people?
CB: This is just an appreciation that how we communicate is extremely rich and extremely multimodal. For a very long time, a lot of AI focused on spoken conversational interaction, and that’s logical, right? People want to be able to talk to each other and to be able to talk and have machines understand them. But very few people are actually looking at the nonverbal dimension and it’s a profound dimension of human communication.
People have done studies that show if you have a person say something but if their body communicates a different attitude, people believe the body and not what’s said. How the body expresses this nonverbal dimension is also profoundly meaningful and convincing and persuasive to people.
When you look at a lot of work in the formation of human social judgements—“Are you an ally or a foe? Can I trust you? Do you have my best interests at heart? Do I like you? Do you like me? Can we relate?”—in all of these things, the nonverbal behavior has a tremendous role in how we make these very quick assessments of one another. And that has a huge consequence on interpersonal interaction and our effectiveness at working with each other as a team. It is a critical dimension of human communication and collaboration.
When we started off with robots, it was really almost more of a stake in the ground saying, “There’s already so much work in spoken language. Let’s focus on embodiment because what do robots have? Bodies!” Bodies are a tremendous asset to robots and they are not only an asset in terms of doing physical work, they’re a tremendous asset in how we interact with them that has not been explored nearly enough.
Even how robots understand the nonverbal behavior of people, in not just gestures but even action patterns—“How can I confirm the intent of a person by watching their activity?”—we do this so naturally. Humans have this profoundly rich theory of mind. The question is how do you design robots that can also have that theory of mind.
We started with these robots that were preverbal. We weren’t trying to get right down to the semantic side, but they were doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of these social cognitive theory of mind skills, in terms of intuiting and understanding the intent and beliefs and desires, where words never had to be exchanged by watching what they were doing. It was a research stance, a stake in the ground, but one that was not explored nearly as richly enough as it should be.
But of course as our work has continued to evolve, now we’re implementing more spoken language into it where you still have the richness of the nonverbal.
The Mechanical Hand That Rocks The Cradle
RW: Why did you choose to focus so much of your research on robots that care for the old, young, and chronically ill?
CB: When you look at the field of robotics, the dominant paradigm is that robots are a technology to do physical work. You can navigate an unstructured environment so you surely must be able to carry things, or vacuum. If you can manipulate things, clearly you can manufacture or do unloading of trucks or things like that. It’s all been about the physical labor aspect.
Within social robotics, one of the big ah-ha moments was that there’s profound utility in what robots can bring for people where it is really around high touch engagement.
If you look at these domains like learning and health care and behavior change and aging independently, these are all domains where in the human professions they understand that high touch, this feeling of being supported by a social other, is really critical to the best outcomes for people. Information alone isn’t enough. Our technologies are great at information but they’re not great at high touch.
We live in this time now where the demand is far exceeding our institutional resources and human professionals. We need technology to step in and fill that gap, but it needs to be high touch technology to be the most effective. Social robots are a really powerful expression of high touch engagement that a technology can perform.
See also: 5 Adorable Robots At CES
We’ve been exploring it in domains like learning companions for young children, like health coaches for weight management, to show that when a robot takes these principles and strategies and skills that people do, that in fact people respond to them in a similar way and do better than with an intervention that doesn’t do that.
I think there’s a huge societal need for technology in general for technology to be much more humanized. By that I mean treating people like human beings and not like other stuff like most of our technology does, and to be able to support this high touch engagement—not to replace people, but to supplement and fill the gap.
It’s really about augmenting and extending what people provide each other. It’s not about marginalizing or replacing people—we still need people, we just don’t have enough people. There’s a huge opportunity here, which is why I talk about emotions as the next wave of computing.
Peaks And Valleys
RW: Robotics have really taken off in part because robot makers of today, including yourself, were movie robot lovers as kids. But many still have that Terminator distrust of robots, the fear of being replaced, as well as the evolutionary revulsion we experience with too-human robots. Do kids interact differently with robots than adults, and if so, how?
CB: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. Regarding the difference in adults versus kids… in my work, I think the way robots were first introduced to society was about replacing human labor. There’s a knee-jerk reaction from the past about robots trying to replace people and take away jobs. But in reality that’s not quite what happens.
With any new technology, they take over the jobs that people don’t necessarily want to do anyway, and they create new jobs. They empower people to do more interesting work.
There’s a great book, Race Against the Machine .… we’re moving from racing against the machine to racing with the machines. I think we need to do a better job communicating this new, more enlightened philosophy: robots are supplementing what people do.
They’re meant to help support us and allow us to do the kind of work that humans in particular find much more interesting and much more fulfilling because humans are creative, humans do things that machines don’t. It’s really about this partnership, this teamwork.
If you set aside this first initial reaction of robots trying to replace people, now we’re just talking about visceral reactions to robots. The uncanny valley. There’s a lot of science poking at what the uncanny valley is really about, but the premise is, when things take on more anthropomorphic like toys or Disney characters or so forth, we like it. It’s appealing. But when you get too close, when you’re really close to being like a human but still falling short, then you drop into the uncanny valley. That’s like, you know, a corpse.
Remember when Pixar did Tin Toy, the precursor to Toy Story? There was this baby in this concrete diaper—that was the joke. That animated short was intended to show how far computer graphics had come at doing people, and it was still way in the valley.
Now we have Shrek and other examples where, we can tell they’re not real humans, but they’re definitely out of the Valley, they’re very appealing. That’s an example of something that went into the valley and came out of the valley.
Robots are also at this point where we can design things that are more anthropomorphic and they’re not in the valley because they’re not trying to push it too hard. And then we have robots, like modern androids I’d say, that are definitely in the valley. But eventually I’m thinking it’s going to go the way of computer graphics and come out of the valley.
Now when you talk about just raw appeal or non appeal between adults and children, I think it’s very similar. I think children can be a little more flexible and forgiving, but I think what children and adults find appealing and unappealing is also similar. I think if adults can get past the Terminator fear or overlord fear or take-over-my-job fear and are just looking at the pure appeal of something as a character, it’s actually quite comparable.
RW: Do you think kids growing up interacting with robots will evolve beyond the uncanny valley experience?
CB: I think there’s two things going on. Kids growing up are not only interacting with robots more, they’re actually building robots themselves. I think you definitely get a different sort of appreciation when you’re a creator of the technology as well as someone who interacts with it.
In terms of the uncanny valley, there are certain things that are just viscerally unappealing. I think that’s just a physiological response, beyond conscious thinking. But I do think that children growing up with robots, creating robots as well as living with them, are going to continue to evolve our thinking in terms of this kind of autonomous intelligent technology that’s not just bits on a screen, but is actually in our world and of our world and how they fit into our lives and how they fit into society and the roles they feel comfortable having these machines play.
How We’ll Learn To Love The Machine
RW: In your studies, what characteristics do robots need to have for people to feel empathy for them? Both in terms of hardware and software?
CB: Even Charles Darwin said human beings are the most social and emotional of all species. It’s true—look at our facial expressions.
In terms of empathy, just even based on our science fiction and mythology even, it’s a profound human quest to think about creating or discovering things that exist that are like us but not quite like us. It’s the fascination with the not-quite-human Other.
Whether it’s Hephaestus making maidens of gold that are walking around and talking to people, or DaVinci’s [mechanical] knight, it seems like whenever we’ve created or advanced technology, very soon after that we create machines that are that much more in our image. I think it’s a profound human quest to do this. I think we do it because it fascinates us. I think we do it to try to understand ourselves.
In terms of empathy, I think we’re naturally inclined to want to emotionally connect with all kinds of things. That’s why we have companion apps, so we can emotionally connect and relate to things that aren’t human at all. We can emotionally connect to ideas, to nature.
I think we want to emotionally connect to our artifacts—we already do—with our cars and things like that. It’s not surprising that we want to emotionally connect with intelligent machines, with robots. The challenge is not to get people there to want to connect to robots. I think the challenge is to get robots to meet us halfway.
I think we already want to, it’s just human nature. I think we delight in it, it gives richness to our lives. I think what we want is to see the Other connect back with us. We want this reciprocity. It’s an AI challenge.
We can connect with things that aren’t anthropomorphic at all. But if you give them a little bit more cues, our brains just respond to them in a very subconscious way. The field of animation is an excellent example of an entire discipline inspired by human movement that discovered these abstracted principles that you can push and not make human at all—for instance, just squiggly lines on a screen—and you can imbue an emotion to.
So you need to understand what is it about our human mind that triggers these ways of thinking and understanding, and again you can take these very abstract ideas of it. But when you put those qualities into a technology, it’s like you’re just dancing with people. That’s the way they want to think, that’s how they respond, and that’s the way they want to try to understand.
It can be done digitally, it can be done through software, it can be done through hardware, and the more those signals reinforce one another in a coherent way, the stronger that perception is. The design space is actually ginormous on how you achieve that.
The quality of movement [is important]. You know rectilinear movement is machine as we know it today; biological movement moves in arcs. There are certain kinds of acceleration/deceleration profiles that organic motion adheres to, that’s typically not of machines. The more that the technology embodies those signals, the easier and more intuitive it is for us to see it as a living thing, a someone, not a something, and for us to want to connect to it, because that’s the next obvious thing we want to do. And then it’s about how does the robot reciprocate with us.
It is a stance almost. It’s attuned reciprocity. For the machine to engage us in the stance of communication, getting back to nonverbal communication, that really makes it happen.
RW: Do you think our increasingly connected world is causing us to lose empathy for fellow humans?
CB: I know there’s a lot of discussion around this right now in the media. I think it is a very important discussion to have because I think, for children in particular growing up, you’re hearing the stories of people breaking up with their girlfriend by texting and things like that.
The bottom line is interpersonal relationships are really important for people, and they can be wonderful, but they can be really complicated. They can be really hard. And they can be hurtful. But that doesn’t mean we should be avoiding them.
What I’m hearing a lot of concern being expressed about is children growing up not learning how to deal with negative emotions, especially negative emotions coming from other people, because they’re kind of offloading it to the technology. Because it is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to say, “Hey, what you did or what I did, it wasn’t cool. Let’s talk about it.” It is a hard thing to do. But it’s a critical skill for people in society to be able to do to live with each other.
There’s no reason to believe that technologies can’t be designed to help strengthen human relationships. I think we just need to put a stake in the ground and say that’s what technology really needs to do. And we need to be cognizant of when we make design choices and people use these technologies, the good that they do and the unintended side effects or consequences that they have and learn from that and try to rectify that.
I think that’s the bottom line. Technology is a powerful enabler of human beings and human experience and we definitely want to create technologies that fully support human beings’ values of what leads to a quality life. Sometimes we do things that have this objective and we don’t quite get it. Or we learn people are using it in a way that’s not the best possible thing you could want. And I think that’s when’s the dialogue is important and that’s when people need to try to create new technologies to show a cognizant shift toward something that is more humanized or more supportive of the human experience and human relationships.
I’m very pro-technology, obviously, and I’m very pro-human relationships. They’re both critical.
RW: What is your opinion on the Robot Bill of Rights, a proposal to extend legal rights to social robots?
CB: Yeah, so this is very interesting. (Laughs)
I haven’t been following it really closely, but Kate Darling at the [MIT] Media Lab is wonderful. She wrote an article two years ago and her argument was very much like, “Why should we extend rights to animals?” Which is, “Do we connect to robots in an interpersonal or effective other way—like we do to animals—enough that we don’t like ourselves or what it says about human society if we mistreat those entities?”
Even if you don’t ascribe any legal rights to animals, the fact that we connect to them and we care about them, that if we mistreat them it makes us feel really bad about what that says about ourselves and our society. So her premise was, whether robots are intelligent or whatever is almost irrelevant. It’s really about people and what it says about ourselves and our society.
I can see a rationale there at some point where if machines are relatable to us enough that we feel inhuman by mistreating them, I think that is interesting. For me just as a mother, whether it’s a pet or a piece of furniture in my house, I don’t want my kids abusing it. There’s just a certain civil behavior that I would like to see ascribed to things as well as living things. It’s a baseline civility stance.
But I do think Kate’s point is a fascinating one, and I think it will keep evolving as these technologies evolve.
RW: You’ve said Jibo is “the world’s first social robot for the home.” Can you elaborate?
Jibo is the world’s first family robot. Jibo’s really about how it interacts with and supports the interactions between human beings in the house. There’s so much stuff around the connected home and the Internet of Things that’s about how your stuff talks to one another. Social robotics is about how this technology engages you.
It’s about bringing this high touch, humanized engagement with technology into the home where, from the whole paradigm of social robots. It’s really about saying technology should be able to interact with us and support us more like a partner that’s helpful versus just a tool that we use.
That frees us up to be in the moment and to experience our life versus what we have with technology now: “Oh I want to take a picture, let me leave the moment, pick up my camera, take the picture, now I have all these pictures of my kids but I’m not in any of them, put the camera back down, and get into the action.”
By having something like Jibo I can stay in the action. I can be with my kids, I can be in the moment, and have that moment recorded. Because Jibo’s playing the role of the cameraman.
As a high order concept, it’s about bringing this helpfulness with heart to the home. This helpfulness is the idea that Jibo plays roles for you, to free you up to be in the flow of your life. Jibo also brings any kind of content to life with this more interpersonal engagement.
Jibo is a storyteller, not an e-reader so even a children’s story is brought to life through the fact that Jibo’s treating you like its audience, looking at you, reading your expressions, telling you a story rather than just displaying a story while playing an audio file of it.
So that level of engagement is very different. We want to enable developers to bring that experience into their content, apps, and services. First of all, because I think it’s going to make their content more emotionally engaging for people, and I think there’s a lot of people in the world who are looking for technology to treat them in a much more humanized way.
CB: That decision was a conscious one, to court developers. Although there’s a lot of robotics research going on in ROS, it’s not necessarily a lot of social robotics research. Jibo in many ways I see as a bridge between the iPad kind of devices of today and the sci-fi robot visions of the future.
We want to court those developers, people who design apps for tablets today, but we’re saying to them, “Hey, you’ve been making apps for flatscreens for a long time. What about something that feels alive?”
Black-and-white robot and shadow image by Flickr user JD Hancock; Braava-in-the-kitchen image courtesy of iRobot; baby and robots image by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite; all other images courtesy of Jibo.
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