30. Leila Takayama

Research Scientist of Willow Garage, How To Make Robots That People Like

Robots are ideal workers—cheap, tireless, exacting—but their poor social skills are hurting their job prospects. "In hospitals," explains Leila Takayama, a social scientist at Willow Garage, a company that develops robots and supplies them to research institutes worldwide, "they tend to roll down the center of the hallway. The nurses think it's rude. If the robots really get on their nerves, they'll shove them in a closet." Takayama studies nonverbal communication everywhere, then programs her findings into the robots.

The inspiration

Animation:
Cartoon robots do human things—scratch their heads, raise their eyebrows, or bug their eyes out in surprise—to express emotions.

How it applies to robots:
Takayama works with Pixar animators to imbue robots with emotion, like shaking their heads when they fail a task. "Just having a reaction makes them seem more competent."

The inspiration

Doormen:
If you seem headed their way, they'll make a dramatic reach toward the door—but if you pass by, they'll pull back without having opened it.

How it applies to robots:
To make their actions seem less abrupt, robots could signal their intentions before executing them. For example: Automatic doors (yes, robots!) could open a bit as someone approaches, pause, then only open fully if needed.

Timeline

  • 2005

    Becomes research assistant at Xerox research center PARC, where the graphical user interface was invented

  • 2008

    Receives PhD in communication and PhD minor in psychology from Stanford University

  • 2011

    Serves as member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Robotics; Smart Devices

  • 2011

    Named one of Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal "40 Under 40"

  • 2012

    Co-edits inaugural issue of the Journal of Human Robot Interaction

  • 2012

    Willow Garage wins $10 million "Expeditions in Computing" award from the National Science Foundation to develop robots that encourage social, emotional, and cognitive growth in children

Illustration by Peter Oumanski

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