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Sometimes a Robot Is Just a Robot

Terrified of our coming AI overlords? The World’s First Robotic Psychiatrist is here for you.

In 1986, Joanne Pransky, J81, declared herself The World’s First Robotic Psychiatrist. Her mission: to get people ready for the robot revolution. She spent the next two decades crisscrossing the globe, putting a smiling face on the coming artificial-intelligence future. She witnessed robotic nursing pigs in Canada and automaton bartenders in New York. She sold industrial robots from Japan. She chatted with the likes of Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and Isaac Asimov. She even judged BattleBots on Comedy Central. Then a curious thing happened—when the robot revolution finally began to arrive, it coincided with the winding down of what Pransky calls her fifteen hours of fame. We recently caught up with this woman ahead of her time to find out how she’s making her way in an era of YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So first of all, what is a robot psychiatrist?
There’s no formal definition. Isaac Asimov, the science fiction author, coined the term “robopsychology” for his character Susan Calvin, who was a human-robot interaction specialist. When I started out, there was no place for me to study, so I kind of just made it up. I saw it as a little bit tongue-in-cheek. It was like saying you were the first pet therapist. Yes, it was for the robot, but you really end up dealing with the humans. Eventually the owner has to come in to learn how to modify his or her own behaviors.

My business model is more from an entertainment and edu-tainment perspective. In the Seventies, there was this San Diego Zoo woman—Joan Embery—who’d bring animals onto The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was hysterical, but the audience was seeing animals that they wouldn’t get to see otherwise. So when I started this in 1986, that was my goal—to bring robots onto late-night national television.

Why robots?
I’ve always envisioned a future with them. When I watched The Jetsons as a kid, the hair on my arms would stand up. And when I was studying child development at Tufts, it hit me like a ton of bricks: how are we going to keep up—psychologically, emotionally, socially—with the exponential rate of technology? But it wasn’t until the mid-Eighties, when I started selling computers, that I knew what to do with it.

You’ve said that your idea for all of this came out of the anxiety you observed in people who were buying computers from you.
The link in my head was, if you can’t even accept that PC on your desk, how are you ever going to be comfortable with your robot doing the dishes? I always envisioned that a robot would be like a PC that could get up and walk next to you. And I just knew that we would not be ready for that.

And a robotic psychiatrist was born?
Dennis DuPuis was actually the one who came up with it. He was my mentor—I was selling computers for him—and he was listening to me going on and on about technology and psychology. He said, “You’ll be a robotic psychiatrist one day!”

Why does it matter if we’re ready?
Well, take Alexa [the talking AI assistant found in Amazon devices such as the Echo]. I think Alexa is a precursor to the robotic future in the house or office. But I don’t have to be nice to Alexa. I can scream “Alexa, shut up!” at the top of my lungs, and that’s totally appropriate. I feel that I’m probably not being a very good role model if I have other people around me when I’m mean to Alexa. If I’m a child, I don’t know if I’m going to learn to say please and thank you, because it’s a waste of words.

And yet you also see potential for this kind of technology to help children. You’re even open to the idea of nanny robots.
There was a recent article in the Guardian and the headline was “This is awful: robot can keep children occupied for hours without supervision.” Obviously it’s not OK to have a child with a robot all day long as a supervisor. But I think it depends on how it’s used. Sometimes mommy has to shower, so you plunk your child in front of the TV. I did that. I knew I could take a five-minute shower while my daughter watched Sesame Street. I’m OK with that, so why wouldn’t I be OK with a robot as a teacher versus none at all? And why wouldn’t this teacher have some positive attributes?

How do you build awareness these days? You started out wanting to bring robots to late-night TV, but the world has changed a lot since then. Is that still the strategy for reaching people?
I’ve been on CNN. I’ve judged BattleBots. I’ve gotten a robot on Kimmel, and I know all the producers. But it dawned on me a couple years ago that you don’t need a national format, you just need a successful YouTube channel. So I’ve been tinkering in the various social media. My business model for the past two years has been specifically: how do I get a million viewers, how do I get a quarter of a million subscribers on YouTube? I bootstrap and fund my own efforts. I also do the projects I call “what a robotic psychiatrist needs to do to make money.” That includes sales marketing and PR for companies, and writing for the Industrial Robot journal. I’d love to have a robot manufacturer actually pay me to bring their robots on camera. But to do that, I need to be credible—I need the subscribers, so it’s worth it to the robot manufacturer to have me do it.

So how’s it all going?
I’ve had this vision, and I feel like I’m around third base, heading for home. I’ve done a few YouTube videos, and I’m now connecting my dots. I feel like I have to at least try to see this through. If I fail, well, it’s OK. One down, what next?

Shannon Fischer is a freelance science writer based in Boston. Her work has appeared in various publications including New Scientist, Boston magazine, and IEEE Pulse magazine.

 
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