Joanne Pransky
World’s First Robotic Psychiatrist®

an interview with Mark Sackler

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In the popular HBO series Westworld, robotic hosts are depicted as being placed into a kind of psychiatric analysis by their creators. Could this actually happen one day? Joanne Pransky thinks it will. She bills herself as the World’s First Robotic Psychiatrist® (yes, she even registered that title!). She was dubbed the real-life Susan Calvin by Isaac Asimov, after the robot psychologist he created in his classic 1950 short story anthology, I, Robot.

Since 1986 her mission has been to showcase robots to the public at large and prepare us for our robotic future. On the occasion of the 32 anniversary of her1986 first foray as a robot educator, I sat down with her to find out exactly what a robot psychiatrist really is.

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Mark: You bill yourself as the world’s first robotic psychiatrist. In fact, you’ve even registered that title. That’s quite a head turner. I know it got my attention. Tell us a little bit of your background, how you got to this state of affairs and what exactly is a robotic psychiatrist?

Joanne: I started that in 1986 and I did it as a way to prepare the world, the public, the National Enquirer, reading group for a time when robots and humans would be coexisting and living together, and I did that with a tongue and cheek approach, a little bit of humor so that the public wouldn’t be so afraid in a way, and I brought alive the Isaac Isaac Asimov character, Dr. Susan Calvin. She was a robot psychologist that he created in 1950 in his book I Robot. So I brought her to life and in 1989 he dubbed me the real Susan Calvin. But my mission, my business model was to bring robots onto national television. Much like animals were being brought on in the sixties and seventies so that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video of a robot or a real robot, to me it was worth a million and that was the best way to prepare the public. In other words, I knew I couldn’t control the future and I knew that all of technology would be increasing at an exponential rate. It would be inevitable, but I felt that my mission was to create awareness and awareness eventually will leads to acceptance. So, from there I engrossed myself, in the late eighties, into everything from industrial robots to the burgeoning of service robots all the way to science fiction — and that’s what I’ve been doing from the last 32 years.

Mark: So if I read this correctly, even though you’re billing yourself as a robotic psychiatrist, what you are really dealing with here is the psychology of human interaction with robots?

Joanne: It is actually. I formally studied undergraduate at Tufts University in child and human development. I was actually really running around in the late seventies at Tufts to the electrical engineering department and to psychiatrists saying technology is increasing at an exponential rate and we can’t keep up psychologically, socially and emotionally. And there was really nowhere for me to study that, or kind of follow through with my ideas on the future, but I kind of thought of [robot psychiatry] like a pet psychiatrist. I figured, you know, let’s pretend it’s 1940 and I’m the first pet shrink! And you’d say, what? Are you kidding me lady? A dog sleeps, it eats, it gets walked. That’s it. And I’d say, oh no, there’s going to be a day when you buy a seat for it on the airplane and you buy jewelry and clothing and you send it to a spa, you have a bark Mitzvah for it.

So that’s what I said about robots, that one day robots would become a family member and we would treat them as a family member regardless if their emotions were equivalent to ours or similar to ours, we would perceive them as such. So I kind of took robo-psychology and upped it for the modern day and just added a psychiatrist to it. Hopefully I thought I’d get paid more, but that hasn’t been the case. So yeah, robotic psychiatry really is just like pets or even children. It’s not so much about the child or the pet, more about the owners, more about the humans that surround the robot and of whom robots will learn from a from.

Mark: The term “robot psychiatrist” tends to conjure up, at least for me, images of the HBO series, Westworld, with the creators of the robot theme park actually putting the robotic hosts into analysis. Is this something that could actually happen in the future do you think? Or is it simply a pipe dream? And if it does happen, how far away do you think it is?

Joanne: I put my life on it so it is totally reality. And when I started this in ’86, there weren’t robots for me to talk to like on Westworld and to analyze face to face and have natural language conversations with. But obviously I’ve always believed there would be—who knows if I’m 100 or 250 years ahead of my time? It’s irrelevant to me. And yes, I think that Westworld does an amazing job of discussing these issues. It’s probably done a lot for my career.

In terms of when [this might happen]—I’ve always been wrong. I always used to say 20 years or 10 years and so I’m always wrong on the time, but I feel very confident that it will take place and it will get harder and harder to look at an algorithm or a software programming to determine what has gone awry—as in Westworld. That’s a great example of how complicated it is and even Asimov predicted that robotic intelligence may be so different from human intelligence that it will take a new discipline, robo-psychology to deal with it.

Mark: Joanne, one issue we frequently hear about in regards to the relationship between humans and robots is something called the Uncanny Valley. It’s the notion that as they get closer and closer to being really human, they begin to creep us out. There are some people who think it’s an overrated problem. What’s your feeling about this? Is it something we have to deal with?

The premise that I started in 1986 is that awareness leads to acceptance, and we are not, as a society, particularly in the United States, as accepting of humanoid robots that look like us.

Joanne: I definitely think it’s an issue and there have been lots of studies that prove it’s an issue and we see it. We see it just about every day. But there are a couple things to keep in mind and with the Uncanny Valley, it’s not just looking human-like that creeps people out. It’s where it’s not quite human like, but human enough—it’s not that it’s an exact doppelganger—perhaps the muscles and the facial movement and the eyes are just not quite human enough. And that is what creeps people out. The premise that I started in 1986 is that awareness leads to acceptance, and we are not, as a society, particularly in the United States, as accepting of humanoid robots that look like us.

Mark: Another tendency we humans have is to anthropomorphize. We even do it with our pets. On simple terms I catch myself doing it with Siri and Alexa, saying thank you, and then reminding myself that these voice assistants aren’t sentient. But we tend to do that with less human like entities, it seems. Why do you think that is?

Joanne: Oh, well I think that humans tend to anthropomorphize for millions of years, you know, and including today, whether it’s a car or a boat and the Alexa example you brought up is really brings up some of the issues that I’ve been addressing for nearly 40 years. And that is, for you and I, we have a background with no tech and no Alexa in our childhood, so of course we just see this as an A.I. You feel you don’t have to say thank you. But what about a child who really communicates with an Alexa or Siri or Google Home on a daily basis? This is how they’re learning to speak and learning to communicate, and they don’t have to say thank you. And so what I always saw, or my biggest concern about technology, is that it’s kind of diminishing human to human relationship.

Of course, this doesn’t answer your question on anthropomorphizing but that was the basis of how I came up with robotics psychiatry. It’s not how sophisticated the A.I. or the robot or even how human it looks. The fact is that we will anthropomorphize that [the machines] will have feelings. We may think that they’re depressed if we leave them alone. We may assume that they have sibling rivalry. I joke that robots may join the #MeToo movement and complain of sexual harassment in the workplace. But I think it’s more about perception than it is reality. And as virtual reality and augmented reality become more and more commonplace what is real, what is not real will become very blurred. And I’m very concerned for the upcoming generation that may not have a basis for what is real.

Mark: In one of your articles, you said that you think the human operating system will be more important than the robot operating system in these relationships. How does that fit in here?

Joanne: That’s one of my favorite things. It’s something I’ve coined as HOS, or human operating system. I work with brilliant engineers who focus on ROS or Robot Operating System, which is an amazing open architecture system, but I’ve always focused on the human operating system. So I believe that very simply, technology, robotics can be used positively or negatively, and it’s up to the human user and maker to have the morals and the ethics to see that it’s used properly. I don’t think there’s enough emphasis in our country on these issues like this. I’d like to see STEM become ESTEEM adding an E for empathy and an E for ethics. I’d like to see a more a focus on, on what it is to be human. For example, creativity, empathy, and compassion. These are things that are innate to humans and I think that will be very important as we go forward in the robot human relationship.

Mark: There is one question that has been bothering me for some time. Will we ever be truly able to know for sure if a machine entity is conscious? Particularly with our tendency to anthropomorphize?

Joanne: Well, I’m not a scientist. But I think that we will. I think scientists will continue on the scientific methods to prove that. But ultimately, I think it’s irrelevant. I think we’re in the middle of this evolution. I try not to focus on the definition of a robot or A.I. or A.G.I. I think we need to focus more in the impact—what is an example of today of consciousness and what is it going to have? How does it impact society? Yes, I think there will be consciousness. Maybe there’ll be something like the Pransky personality test to decipher if the robot is conscious or you’re A.I. is not conscious. I just think that it’s going to happen regardless of the definition or scientifically.

Mark: Finally, is there anything about robots that society as a whole— not just engineers and futurists and robot psychiatrists—aren’t asking but should be?

Joanne: I think we should be asking, when it comes to robots, who we are as humans and what robots will be learning from us? Our devices will be learning from us. So, who are we, as humans, to teach our robot children and what ethics and morals and values do we have that we would want to instill upon them. Again, I use the word children because that’s how I think they’re going to learn primarily from experience in a human environment. I think the questions to ask are about morals and ethics and empathy and creativity and, and in that what, what it’s like to be human and give us something that A.I. or robots don’t have.


BIOGRAPHY

Dubbed as the ‘real Susan Calvin’ by Isaac Asimov, Joanne Pransky, the World’s First Robotic Psychiatrist®, prepares the world for the human-robot relationship.

Joanne has been tracking the robot evolution for over three decades and is a burgeoning voice in the now-official field of human-robot interaction. She was the senior sales and marketing executive for a major industrial robot manufacturer, an official judge on Comedy Central’s BattleBots, and has been an associate editor for Industrial Robot Journal for the past 25 years. Joanne was one of the co-founders and marketing director of the first medical robotics journal, The International Journal of Medical Robotics and Computer Assisted Surgery. Joanne has consulted for some of the industry’s top robotic and entertainment organizations including Summit Entertainment’s film “Ender’s Game” in which she brought never-seen-before medical robots to the big screen. Joanne has appeared on numerous television shows and documentaries to discuss the emotional

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