Loving Robots - Come On, You Can Do It

Given that machines will continue to proliferate in our environment, it behooves us to begin to develop friendly relationships with them.

One day, we’ll be used to little robots running around in our home. They’ll be cute and small like children, except they wont scream and squeal and make a mess. Instead, they’ll hum and purr and clean up the toys, follow you around as you dictate notes, and read a story to your elderly mother. These robots are not the kind you’ll find coldly snapping caps on bottles at a factory assembly line, aggressively lifting concrete at the construction site, or silently performing delicate surgery in the operating room. No, these household companions are social, i.e. they have human characteristics like facial expressions, body postures, and tone of voice that vary depending on the context. They will “respond” and “react” to us, which will make us care for them much as we care for pets and other humans. Eventually, almost all robots will have this interactive social side to them, but it will be robotic household companions that we’ll have our most nurturing relationships with.


Of course, right now, this all seems quite ridiculous. With the exception of the roomba, which quietly vacuums your house while you’re away, there isn’t any widely available robot for the home. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We may think that there are just a handful of robots in the world, but just in Carnegie Mellon University, 547 robots are leading a quasi-academic life. Social roboticist Heather Knight who runs Marylin Monrobot in New York, discovered this neat fact when she began running the first ever non-industrial robot census in the world. The census aims to understand everything about the robots, including when they were born, their personalities, and their employment status among other details. Although the census is receiving a great deal of attention in the press, Knight says she started it because she was just “looking to meet some cool robots.”

Knight’s robot census is significant for two reasons: first, a centralized catalogue of all the robots in the world is extremely useful; second, and in our opinion more importantly, the census humanizes robots. By asking questions like: Name of Robot; When was it was Conceived; When was it Born; Employment Status (Learning, Working, Retired); and Gender (Male, Female, Other), it forces anyone reading the census to acknowledge the personality and thus “human-ness” of the robot.   

Given that machines will continue to proliferate in our environment, it behooves us to begin to develop friendly relationships with them. For example, what machine are you reading this blog on? Your smart phone, your laptop or desktop, your iPad? Lean back a little. Observe the machine. It’s really quite useful. It’s design is rather elegant. Yes, AT&T iPhones drop calls all the time, and Windows software makes PCs crash at all the wrong moments. But overall, these machines are mostly helpful and for the most part unobtrusive. One day, this little machine may come on two wheels that allow it to follow you around, it may have eyes at the top that joyously widen when you come near it, and hands that give you tools when you’re fixing your car. It may have tiny ears that perk up when you tell it to note something, a sweet voice that reminds you to call your sister to say Happy Birthday, and it may know to play your favorite music every time you lie on your bed. In other words, it might become a small robot. Such features attached to your iPad don’t seem like a huge stretch. Social robotics is after all as much about psychology (understanding what people like and respond to) as it is about artificial intelligence (which can be acceptably quite limited). 

Are you saying you wouldn’t like this extension of your current machine? If you find yourself responding, “maaaaybe …” then you will more easily adapt to the age when we co-exist with robots. If you don't adapt quickly, not only will you be unable to enjoy the benefit and companionship of robots, but you will also be unable to train them or recognize machine manipulation. Best to start practicing now. Go ahead. Give your laptop or phone a little stroke. It’s not that strange. One day soon, it will purr in appreciation.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.

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As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Lumina Foundation and Big Think have partnered to bring this entrepreneurial competition to life, and we hope you'll participate! We have narrowed down the competition to four finalists and will be announcing an audience's choice award and a judges' choice award in May.

The creator of the winning video — chosen by Big Think's audience, the Lumina Foundation, and an independent panel of experts (bios below) — will be flown to New York for a taping in the Big Think studio as a way to further promote their vision for a new, disruptive idea in post-secondary education.

Thank you to all of the contestants who spent time submitting applications, and best of luck to our final four competitors.

Finalist: Greater Commons - Todd McLeod

Greater Commons, founded by Todd McLeod and Andrew Cull, is an organization that helps people live happier, more successful and fulfilling lives through agile learning. The current education system is inefficient and exclusionary, in which many students who end up earning a degree, if at all, enter a career not related to their field of study. Greater Commons solves this problem and gap in post-high school secondary education in a variety of ways. Passionately and diligently, Great Commons helps others obtain skills, knowledge, wisdom, motivation, and inspiration so that they may live better lives.

Finalist: PeerFoward - Keith Frome

PeerForward is an organization dedicated to increasing the education and career success rates of students in low-income schools and communities by mobilizing the power of positive peer influence. PeerForward works with partner schools to select influential students as a part of a team, systemizing the "peer effect." Research in the fields of sociology of schools, social-emotional learning, adult-youth partnerships, and civic education demonstrates that students can have a positive effect on the academic outcomes of their peers. PeerForward is unique through its systemic solutions to post-secondary education.

Finalist: Cogniss - Leon Young

Cogniss combines technology and best practice knowledge to enable anyone to innovate and share solutions that advance lifelong learning. Cogniss is the only platform to integrate neuroscience, through which it solves the problem of access by providing a low-code platform that enables both developers and non-developers to build sophisticated education apps fast, and at a much lower cost. It addresses the uneven quality of edtech solutions by embedding research-based learning design into its software. App creators can choose from a rich set of artificial intelligence, game, social and data analytics, and gamification to build their perfect customized solution.

Finalist: Practera - Nikki James

Practera's mission is to create a world where everyone can learn through experience. Today's workplaces are increasingly dynamic and diverse, however, costly and time-consuming experiential learning is not always able to offer the right opportunities at scale. Many students graduate without developing the essential skills for their chosen career. Practera's team of educators and technologists see this problem as an opportunity to transform the educational experience landscape, through a CPL pedagogical framework and opportunities to apply students' strengths through active feedback.

Thank you to our judges!

Our expert judges are Lorna Davis, Dan Rosensweig, and Stuart Yasgur.

Lorna Davis is the Senior Advisor to Danone CEO and is a Global Ambassador for the B Corp movement. Lorna has now joined B-Lab, the non-for-profit that supports the B Corporation movement on an assignment to support the journey of large multi nationals on the path to using business as a force of good.

Dan Rosensweig joined Chegg in 2010 with a vision for transforming the popular textbook rental service into a leading provider of digital learning services for high school and college students. As Chairman and CEO of Chegg, Dan commits the company to fulfilling its mission of putting students first and helping them save time, save money and get smarter.

Stuart Yasgur leads Ashoka's Social Financial Services globally. At Ashoka, Stuart works with others to initiate efforts that have mobilized more than $500 million in funding for social entrepreneurs, engaged the G20 through the Toronto, Seoul and Los Cabos summits and helped form partnerships with leading financial institutions and corporations.

Again, thank you to our incredible expert judges.

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