Cynthia Breazeal, 34
Constructs robots whose expressive faces convey humanlike emotions
People often ask Cynthia Breazeal, director of the MIT Media Laboratory’s robotic-life group, whether robots will take over the world. “I’m like, ‘Oh, go see a movie,’” she laughs. Nonetheless, there’s something Hollywood about Breazeal’s work. She builds expressive robots that exhibit socially appropriate emotional responses, attracting media attention as well as advancing artificial-intelligence research. For her doctoral thesis, Breazeal constructed Kismet, a bright-eyed mechanical head that reacts to human voices, movements, and expressions with smiles, frowns, and raised eyebrows. Her latest robot, Leonardo, a collaboration with the Stan Winston Studio, of movie special-effects fame, is a 75-centimeter-tall creature. The furry bot’s 60 small motors produce fluid movements and subtle facial expressions; it also has pressure-sensitive “skin”, microphones, a speech synthesizer, and camera “eyes” that track people’s faces and gestures. Unlike other robots, whose actions are driven by programmed routines, Leonardo learns tasks by assessing humans’ expressions and imitating their movements. Breazeal calls it “the most expressive robot today,” and because she believes “socially intelligent” robots could become actors, or helpers for the elderly, she is conducting studies of human-robot interaction. Her lab is also helping NASA build a “robonaut” space assistant that might one day perform maintenance tasks in space.