Cynthia Breazeal

Toy story: How Socio-Empathetic Robots Can Change Our Lives and Work

My kids really like the latest Pixar movies- just as I do, by the way: Toy Story, Cars and Planes are favorites. For a period of long time, I have watched these movies as if they were the new Bambi or Dombo. Visiting a session of Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Media Lab of the prestigious MIT, during the SXSW in Austin earlier this year, changed this perspective. ‘The personal side of robots’ was the theme of her session.


Robots capture the imagination; whether we talk about the android Data from Star Trek, or the sardines can-build Pompy the Robodoll from the Dutch television series. They are the icons of human progress, which up until this moment, have mostly empowered the innovation in the industry and space travel. Robots can take on the heavy thinking, that doesn’t require socio-empathetic qualities. Mashable has recently published an article on how drones and robots will change the farming business radically.  


We seem to enter the next phase in the development of robots. This also means a new phase in how robots can change our lives and our work. Breazeal is working on the development of socio-empathetic robots. She asks the question: we send robots to the depth of the sea and to the far end of the universe; when will we allow robots to enter the vicinity of our own homes?


In our personal lives, opposed to industry or space travel, it comes to social-empathetic qualities. Breazeal examines how it would be possible to make robots social creatures and make them emotionally intelligent. It is funny that people find it all right, when robots take over our thinking through artificial intelligence. We have ourselves transported by unmanned vehicles, but it is still controversial to think that robots might be empathetic.


At first I was a bit skeptical about this development. The story of Breazeal convinced me though, that this development is definitely going to change our lives and our work.

Stuffed animals

Breazeal has shown a number of experiments where she has succeeded in having robots read facial expressions and react in a proper manner. In this video, Kismet, the experimental robot of Breazeal, comes surprisingly close to real human interaction. Breazeal also showed a number of experiments where robots helped children do their reading exercises or read them stories. These children seemed to build a connection with the robots pretty soon, like they were stuffed animals or Toy Story gadgets.


What does this all mean? How would the robots change our lives and our work in the future? I see five possible consequences:

  • The social, empathetic and esthetical dimensions of technology will become more important. These developments will ensure that we will not only judge the effectiveness of technology, but will also take the socio-empathetic qualities into consideration. The esthetical qualities of technology in the consumer business are already very important. The accepted analysis of the failure of the Google Glass is, that the aesthetical qualities of this product have not been taken into consideration. If we accept technology into our lives, it needs to be more than just technology. 
  • We can only hitch on to this development with a healthy dose of playfulness. The development of the socio-empathetic robots asks for a further development of the perspective ‘play’ in our lives and work. Arne Gillert has defined the six workable principles of playing, where Play uses imagination is just one of them. Imagination and play belong together. We will have to step into the play of robots. Of course we know that they are not live creatures, but we will only benefit when we start treating them as such.  
  • The way we learn and shape our education will change radically. The socio-empathetic robot will revolutionize the world of learning and education. The success of the Khan Academy  shows that there is already a gap between the way young people learn and the way our educational system has been shaped. With socio-empathetic robots we will reach a new level in mentoring our students – and even ourselves - in learning. They can share knowledge and information. They can build a kind of database on where to find which knowledge. They will be able to provide fast feedback based on the enormous amount of data from any device. And not only on content, but also on behavior. They will be able to take social and empathetic factors into account. 
  • The (logistic) complexity of our lives and our work will be disburdened. The socio-empathetic robot will become the new hub in our personal and professional lives. You will see a glimpse of this in the trailer of the Jibo, also a product of Cynthia Breazeal. At this moment in time, we bump into the increasing complexity in our personal lives as well as in our work. We just can’t manage. Besides time for reflection, mindfulness and a healthy balance between home and work, it is time for the next level; I project that robots will help us take the next step. They will help us to create an overview of our many tasks and responsibilities in our lives
  • The ethical component of our jobs is increasing. Joost Steins Bisschop has written two columns in the Dutch Financial Times (FD) over the last weeks, on the importance of philosophy and ethics in relation to the robotizing of our society. "[If we] leave more and more to robots (…), and these substitutes have to make decisions on ethical dilemma’s: what will they decide? (…)” This depends on how we program these robots. This means that much of the work that remains for us is making ethical choices. Ethical dilemmas are becoming increasingly important because we can’t outsource them to technology.

In Toy Story, Cars en Planes, Buzzy Lightyear, Cars McQueen and Dusty Crophopper are introduced as living toys and socio empathetic means of transport. My kids play with these toys as if they were stuffed animals; they are imaginary characters in their lives. We might look at these movies later and discover that they were the predecessors of the technological developments. Maybe these movies will have prepared a new generation to a new reality where non-living characters have socio-empathetic qualities.
How do you think about the future of robots in our lives and our work? Leave your reaction on this page.
Do you want to subscribe to my blog posts? Subscribe to the mailinglist.