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Turning Science Fiction into Scientific Reality

Cynthia Breazeal talks about women and technology

By Annie Vernick | null null , null
Scholastic Kid Reporter Annie Vernick interviews Cynthia Breazeal. (Photo: Courtesy of Annie Vernick)
Scholastic Kid Reporter Annie Vernick interviews Cynthia Breazeal. (Photo: Courtesy of Annie Vernick)

When Cynthia Breazeal saw the first Star Wars movie in fifth grade, her favorite characters were the robots R2-D2 and C-3PO. This isn't too surprising for a girl who grew up to become a world-famous robotics pioneer. Today, Breazeal is an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and director of MIT's Robotics Life Group, where she designs robots that can interact with people and even register emotions.

"Robots have already been to the moon, to Mars, and to the deep oceans," she notes. "Where they really haven't been is in our homes. For robots, the final frontier isn't space; it's your living room. I dream of a future where robots are a beneficial part of everyday life for everyone—helping people, being companions for people, enriching our lives."

So how do you make machines that will effectively communicate with people? Breazeal started her work in robotics as an MIT graduate student, when she created Kismet—a metallic head that responded to people through facial expressions and a babbling, babylike "language." Today Breazeal's work focuses on Leonardo, a more advanced robot, whose furry body was built with the help of the same special-effects studio behind the animatronic dinosaurs seen in the film Jurassic Park.

"Leonardo can understand some language, make many facial expressions, grab objects, and learn simple tasks—such as pushing buttons—from people," explained Breazeal. "And we're beginning to work on giving him the ability to talk."

Breazeal envisions a bright future for social robots. "They could become learning companions for children or in-home helpers for the elderly," she said. "They could also join human teams of firefighters or search-and-rescue workers, taking on some of the more hazardous tasks. There are many, many possible applications."

However, Breazeal pointed out, social robots are still very much in the research phase. "It will be years before they're ready to go out into the world to help people," she said. "We have a lot to do to make them more intelligent, develop the best motors and other components, and manage it all at a price people are willing to pay."

Breazeal may have a lot of work ahead of her, but she found time to talk with me recently about women's careers in technology:

Scholastic News: Are there many women working in your field?

Cynthia Breazeal: Women are still very much a minority in robotics and technology. In some areas of robotics, including my specialty of social robots, you see higher percentages of women than in other areas, although we're still a minority.

The plus side of it is, if you're a woman presenting your work, you do tend to get more attention because you're different. But on the other hand, you don't want to get recognized because of your gender, you want to get recognized because of the quality of your work. So you have to always present your work in the most scientific, rigorous way possible.

SN: Has being a woman in your field been a challenge?

Breazeal: At MIT, everyone has to work really hard, whether you're a man or a woman. Fortunately for me, I'm in a generation where there's awareness for wanting more women in the sciences and technology. When my mom was going through mathematics and being a scientist, there were more hurdles for her, more blatant discrimination. For me, times have really changed. People have been much more openly supportive of women in the field.

SN: As a woman, how do you balance your demanding career with the rest of your life?

Breazeal: I have a 4-month-old and a 22-month-old at home. Kids that age require a lot of time and attention, so we have a nanny who works for us from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week. I wouldn't be able to have my career if I didn't have that kind of help.

There was a time when women felt they had to do everything all by themselves and be these superwomen, but it's becoming more balanced now. We're realizing we can't be afraid to ask for help. And dads are doing a lot more of the parenting than they did 20 years ago. Still, I think the child-raising commitment, especially when your kids are really little, falls more on the mom. So it's tough. It's difficult to balance family and work, but it's doable.

SN: What message would you give to girls who are interested in a career in technology?

Breazeal: The field needs more women! Women bring different insights and interests to the field. For example, the fact that more women are gravitating toward the social aspects of robots than to other areas of robotics suggests a special affinity of women to these kinds of scientific pursuits.

In addition, I see more and more articles showing that the top students coming out of high schools are often girls now. So if we want our country's best minds going into technology, we need more equal representation for girls.

SN: What should young girls start doing to prepare for a career in technology?

Breazeal: There are a lot of things you can do. Get a good foundation in math and science at school, of course. There are also a lot of fun extracurricular opportunities, such as the FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] Robotics Competition for kids. I think that in many ways learning by doing is the most educational experience you can have. You take ideas from the classroom or books and apply them in creative ways. I'd definitely encourage girls to do as much of that as they can.

SN: Who are your role models?

Breazeal: My immediate role models include the very well-respected women faculty at MIT who have the kind of career I'm trying to achieve right now. Then there are men and women, including FIRST founder Dean Kamen, who help open the minds of young people to the creative use of technology. People like that are very inspiring to me.

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About the Author

Annie Vernick is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.

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