Actuator, TechCrunch’s weekly robotics newsletter, published an earlier version of this article. The information regarding a new scholarship fund established in her honor has been updated.
When I learned of Joanne Pransky’s passing late last month, I didn’t know her personally, so I contacted my LinkedIn followers to see if any of them had.
Didn’t everyone, the person said, “Yes”? Pransky has contributed significantly to the industry over many years of labor, adding a particularly human perspective to discussions about robots and automation.
Helen Greiner, CEO of Tertill and co-founder of iRobot, told me through email that Joanne embodied the phrase “Think Different.” She was a trailblazer in drawing attention to the implications of robots for both human civilization and the robots themselves.
As the “world’s first real Robotic Psychiatrist,” Pransky boldly proclaimed herself to be committed to serving as a bridge between people and robots.
According to her official biography, “my ultimate goal is to help people understand their emotional, social, and psychological responses to robotic technologies, which are bound to proliferate in the coming years and impact every aspect of their lives.”
Working with developers to find ways to adapt technology to human civilization was occasionally part of the job description.
Sometimes it involved persuading people that robots aren’t the danger that decades of science fiction have portrayed them to be. She was given the opportunity to speak on platforms like TEDx, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and the Comedy Central “BattleBots” competition for three years because to those interactions.
Her mission statement emphasized the significance of science fiction. When Pransky met Isaac Asimov, the renowned author asked her to update him on recent developments in the field of robots. Pransky enthusiastically recalled the encounter.
In their meeting, Asimov referred to her as “the real life Susan Calvin,” a reference to the robopsychologist figure from the 1950 short story collection “I, Robot,” which served as the basis for the Will Smith movie of the same name.
Professor Robin Murphy of the Texas A&M Department of Computer Science & Engineering tells TechCrunch via email that while Pransky frequently and proudly recounts the anecdote, the connection isn’t exactly appropriate.
The author Murphy adds, “Joanne was quite proud that Isaac Asimov named her the actual Susan Calvin, which was weird because Susan Calvin was disagreeable, a loner, never smiled, didn’t have a husband or a family – the reverse of Joanne. Joanne would be the ideal lady to exemplify what Asimov wanted robots to be, as opposed to a stock persona, so it makes sense.
The news of Pransky’s passing was first revealed by Murphy. As she writes in her homage on Robohub, “Joanne was one of the first to really push what is now called human-centered robotics — that there is always a human involved in any robot system.”
On her YouTube account RobotMD, Pransky also provides more information about herself. This passage from her Robot on the Couch TEDx lecture seems to best capture her vision.
Robots can help us and enhance our lives in a variety of ways, but they are not human and cannot feel human emotions. They won’t get butterflies in their stomach as a result of giving a TEDx lecture.
They won’t experience exhilaration from laughing so hard that they cry out of uncontrollable laughter. They won’t understand the human suffering that results from losing a loved one. We shouldn’t describe robot reactions using our language because robots are not the same as us.
As our understanding of what is artificial and what is real gets more hazy, attributing a feeling like artificial empathy to a machine may only cause confusion and the belief that machines emote similarly to people. Face-to-face interactions with other people teach humans empathy.
A scholarship in Pransky’s honor was secretly established this week by the nonprofit organization Women in Robotics. The fund, which is presently raising money through Bold.org, is dedicated to inspiring female and non-binary students to pursue careers in robotics.
“We have local events in many locations that are robotics hubs as well as a global online community.
We need more women and others from underrepresented groups in the robotics community because the field is expanding quickly, the organization said. The Joanne Pransky Celebration of Women in Robotics Scholarship is intended to encourage incoming freshmen and undergraduates to consider taking robotics courses.
The president of the group, Andra Kaey, tells TechCrunch that Joanne was frequently the only woman in the room as a pioneer in the fields of social robotics, robot sales and marketing, and robotics journals.
She was one of the founding members and advocates of the Women in Robotics organization, going out of her way to make other women who were new to the industry feel at ease.We will miss Joanne’s enthusiasm, her kindness toward others, and her contagious enthusiasm for robotics.
To encourage young women to pursue careers in robotics, we sincerely hope that people will visit The Joanne Pransky Museum of Social Robots in Oakland and contribute to the Joanne Pransky Women in Robotics Scholarship.