Cynthia Breazeal, SM '93, ScD '00


Cynthia Breazeal, SM '93, ScD '00, Founder and Chief Scientist, Jibo, Inc.
Founder and Chief Scientist, Jibo, Inc.

At age 10, Cynthia Breazeal, was really inspired and influenced by the movie Star Wars. “I was fascinated by the droids, R2D2 and C3PO.” Breazeal felt robots were not only intelligent and capable, but also social and emotive — with rich personalities and capable of forging meaningful relationships with people. “Robots for me should always have intelligence with heart, and they should engage with us like devoted sidekicks, instead of just tools or slaves. Our experience with technology should reinforce what we love about the human experience, not dehumanize us.” This is her enduring vision.

When it came time for her to think about her future, she first wanted to be a doctor – typical at that time for girls who were serious about their futures and interested in science. In terms of gender issues, she notes, “I am fortunate that I have not encountered roadblocks on my career path because of my gender. It starts at home,” she says, where she was raised with the expectation and confidence that she could do anything that she set her mind to. Both her parents were career scientists.

Being aware of the great job opportunities in STEM-related fields, her parents encouraged her to pursue them. So she worked summers at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where her mother worked.

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Breazeal realized – with some parental encouragement — that majoring in engineering would keep her options more open than premed. Later, she decided she wanted to be an astronaut – a mission specialist, which meant getting a PhD in a relevant field. Space robotics was a natural choice and she applied for graduate programs accordingly.

At the time that she was accepted to MIT to work in the Artificial Intelligence Lab with Rod Brooks in the early 90s, he had just published his seminal work advocating for small, autonomous micro rovers for planetary exploration — Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System. “Rod’s ideas about autonomous microrovers,” she notes “were very influential for NASA’s sojourner program, which came about in 1997.”

Reality hit Breazeal when she arrived at Brooks’ AI Lab. “I remember my first day walking into Rod Brooks’ lab and seeing all the autonomous robots scurrying about (or not)— all inspired by insect intelligence,” she recalls. “It was as if my first moment of watching Star Wars on the big screen came flooding over me all over again. At that moment, I knew that if we were ever going to see real robots like R2D2 and C3PO, it was going to happen in this lab.” From that point on, Breazeal didn’t want to be an astronaut; she wanted to make the dream of her childhood, robots a reality.

Rod Brooks’ support ranged from intellectual and creative freedom to credit that helped build her reputation in the field – even while she was a graduate student. “Rod is the one who taught me how to be a thought leader and a visionary,” she notes. He told her that no matter how big the field, people get stuck in a rut – making the same assumptions. He recommended: “Find that rut, change yourself and change it, and create a new movement” — which she is doing with Social Robotics.

In fact, she credits Rod Brooks for his support of the women in his group. When she first joined his group, women actually outnumbered the men. “Few people know what a strong proponent Rod has been to women in the field. Look at the women leaders in robotics today — many were either Rod’s former students, or students of his students,” she notes.

Breazeal also credits Anita Flynn, who was a staff research scientist in Rod’s lab when she first joined the group. Breazeal describes her as one of the most high energy, positive thinking, creative, tech-savvy people she knows. She says “For [Anita], robotics was a ‘family sport’ — everyone pitches in, everyone helps everyone else because that’s what a family does.” Breazeal has emulated her positive impact by setting the same culture in her own group the Personal Robotics Group in the MIT Media Lab where she is Associate Professor.

At the time of this writing, Breazeal is on professional leave from MIT, and is founder and Chief Scientist at her new company Jibo, Inc. The company is dedicated to bringing social robots to the mass consumer market. Toward that goal, they are developing the first open social robotics platform and the world’s first family robot named Jibo. In fact, as she gave the keynote for the first Women in Innovation and Entrepreneurship networking reception held in connection with Start6, the EECS IAP workshop for entrepreneurs and innovators, she announced that she had just closed a series A funding of $25.3 million (the press announcement was the day before on Jan. 21, 2015) for her company. “The world will be a better place with more women entrepreneurs,” she shared to an enthusiastic group. [Cynthia Breazeal is speaking at this event on January 22 at the MIT Media Lab in the photo above. Photo credit: John Gillooly, Professional Event Images, Inc.]

She says, “Jibo is the ‘meta’ of my work at MIT and of the field of Social Robotics.” Her insight is that while most people think of robots doing physical things, her research and labs worldwide have shown that social robots are a powerful technology for human engagement — making greater emotional and social impact than current flat-screened, gadget, data-driven technologies. In creating Jibo (and most likely successors) she believes that people will be open to a technology that engages them in a humanized way; that this will exert a real and positive impact on human behavior and performance.

“The provocative thing,” she says, “is that research in my lab and others around the world is showing that people can actually learn better with social robots, adhere to a behavior change protocol better, feel greater psychological involvement and empathy via telepresence, etc.”

Breazeal, who is also the mother of three boys and married to Robert Blumofe (see page 70), relates her perspective on the growth of social robotics.

“The dream of robots has been with us for a very, very long time. Think of our myths and legends. Then think of the evolution of ancient automata. The digital computer was invented in the 1930s, and in 1950 Alan Turing wrote his seminal article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” — where he argued for robots! It is a long and profound human quest. We’ve been dreaming about, building and iterating on the dream of robots longer than computers, smartphones, the Internet…because robots speak to the philosophical question: ‘what does it mean to be human?’ We have a connection to robots unlike any other technology.”