A massive gender gap, a premature fear of robots and human stereotypes applied to machines — the field of robotics is dealing with a lot of issues. Still, Andra Keay, Managing Director at Silicon Valley Robotics, loves being a woman in robotics. In this interview she explains why.
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Why I love being a Woman in Robotics
— An interview with Andra Keay
Andra, do you have a (favourite) robot at home? What does it do?
Andra Keay: I love robots that work so well that we don’t even think of them as robots anymore (like a vacuum cleaner or a car). But I also love any robot that you can build or program yourself. I have a Cozmo from Anki and it has a lot of personality. You play games with it, but it also comes with an open SDK so that you can do some sophisticated robotics programming relatively simply.
In your questionnaire for #ada17 you predicted 2017 as the year of social robots. What are the most fascinating project in this field to you?
Andra Keay: The most fascinating social robots of 2017 are the ones that are actually in our homes or lives that are having ongoing conversations with us, like Kuri from Mayfield Robotics, and Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. They have the opportunity to gather data that they can learn from. Initially we won’t see much improvement but eventually our social robots will start to become smarter.
SXSW director Hugh Forrest calls “Fear of a Robot Future” one of the biggest topics that our society will have to face. Do you share his view? And what are measures against this fear?
Andra Keay: Robots are really just embodied AI (or automated computation). Robots are at the most complex and difficult end of the scale of smart machines but AI and computerization have already had a huge impact on our society and will continue to do so. Our fear of robots is very premature. Instead we should look at things that are critical right now, like access and ownership of our own data.
I just read an interesting article on Robohub titled “Should robots be gendered?” What’s your take on this issue?
Andra Keay: Don’t gender robots! There is a design principle ‘design down’ which means that you should only add features that are necessary. We imbue most objects around us with character already. If we make robots explicitly human like then we will perpetuate stereotypes. Already we are seeing gendered voices in chatbots or apps being used in stereotype ways. Generally female voices are used for empathy and persuasion and male voices are used for authority and directions.
You started the Women in Robotics community. Does this specialized Tech field have a similar gender gap to its older sibling #WomenInTech?
Andra Keay: If anything the gender gap is worse in robotics than in any other field of computer science. I think venture capital is about the only worse area. Ironically, I know many, many, amazing women in AI and robotics, and certain companies have a great gender balance. But most companies have no women at all. Or only have women working in administrative or marketing roles.
The Women in Robotics community (you can sign up here!)is an important way to improve the situation particularly for women who are isolated in their workplace. Our online community means that you can chat to other women no matter where you work.
At the same time it inspires us all to organize meetups or social gatherings and gives us an avenue to share the invitations more broadly in our communities. Visibility is another important thing we can do to improve the gender imbalance. We have an annual list “25 women in robotics you need to know about” because visible role models are critical to inspire women to enter the field and to validate the work that women are currently doing.
We have published more than 100 brief profiles of women in robotics covering every sort of role from academia to industry. I look forward to showcasing another 25 incredibly interesting women in 2017.