The Uncanny Valley at IROS

Masahiro Mori Uncanny Valley-1338919046064For me, the highlight of IROS was the Uncanny Valley special session, although the sheer size of the IROS conference and the parallel iRex industrial and service robot expo also gave much food for thought. In particular, the new coworking robots from Kawada [video] and ABB look very interesting, but it’s clear that it still takes a long time for research to transition into robust applied robotics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why isn’t my mother a mechanic?

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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.

This post is part of an International Womens Day wrap over at Robohub – your global source of robotics news and views!

This year in robots!

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Why I haven’t been posting here: I’ve been working on Robohub.org – your source for news, views and everything robotic!

I’ve also been setting up Silicon Valley Robotics – the professional association for robotics in Northern California, which could become the largest robotics cluster in the world.

I’ve also been working on Robot Launchpad – accelerating the growth of robot startups via events, introductions, interviews and other services. 

And the most recent spinoff from all of these things is Robot Garden – a robotics hackerspace in the East Bay or TriValley area of San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley.

Ada Lovelace Day: Women in robotics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All – The Atlantic

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It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here’s what has to change.

This article by Anne-Marie Slaughter tells it like it is.

Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture for Higher Education « User Generated Education

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In its simplest terms, the flipped classroom is about viewing and/or listening to lectures at home during one own time which frees up face-to-face class time for experiential exercises, group discussion, and question and answer sessions.

It’s called “the flipped classroom.” While there is no one model, the core idea is to flip the common instructional approach. With teacher-created videos and interactive lessons, instruction that used to occur in class is now accessed at home, in advance of class. Class becomes the place to work through problems, advance concepts, and engage in collaborative learning. Most importantly, all aspects of instruction can be rethought to best maximize the scarcest learning resource—time. Flipped classroom teachers almost universally agree that it’s not the instructional videos on their own, but how they are integrated into an overall approach, that makes the difference (The Flipped Classroom by Bill Tucker).

SciFi, Design and Technology | The Robot State

Make It So: What Interaction Designers can Learn from Science
Fiction Interfaces
Presentation Notes, Nathan Shedroff and Chris Noessel
4 September 2009, dConstruct 09 Conference, Brighton, UK

(also SXSW 2012?)

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This is the first presentation of only a portion of the material we’ve found in our analysis of Science Fiction films and television series. Weʼre also looking a industry future films (like Apple’s Knowledge Navigator) as well as existing products and research projects. Our analysis includes properties (films and TV), themes (different issues in interface design), as well as the historical context of the work (such as the current technology of the time of the propertyʼs release). In addition, weʼre interviewing developers (including production designers from  films) but this material isnʼt presented in this talk. For this presentation, weʼve focused on the major issues, part academic and theoretical, and part lessons (more practical) weʼve uncovered.

How design influences SciFi and how SciFi influences design:

We’ve chosen to focus on interface and interaction design (and not technology or engineering). Some visual design issues relate but, mostly, in this talk, weʼre not approaching issues of styling. Weʼve chosen the media of SciFi (TV and films) because a thorough analysis of interaction design in SciFi requires that the example be visual so interfaces are completely and concretely represented, include motion that describe the interaction, and (sometimes) has been seen by a wide audience.

Scientifically determining “influence” in any context (whether from Design on SciFi or visa versa) is difficult, and much of what we illustrate is inference on the part of the authors.

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