A version of this post original appeared in TechCrunch’s weekly robotics newsletter, Actuator. It has been updated to include details about a new scholarship fund being raised in her honor.
I didn’t know Joanne Pransky personally, so when news of her death broke late last month, I reached out to my LinkedIn followers, asking if any of them did. “Yes,” answered one, “didn’t everyone?” Over decades of work, Pransky has left a lasting impact on the industry, bringing a uniquely human element to conversations about robotics and automation.
“Joanne was the epitome of ‘Think Different,’” iRobot co-founder and Tertill CEO Helen Greiner told me over email. “She was a pioneer in calling attention to what robots would mean for society and what human society would mean for the robots.”
Pransky proudly adopted the title of “the world’s first real Robotic Psychiatrist,” devoting herself to act as a conduit between humans and robots. “My ultimate goal is to help people understand their emotional, social and psychological responses to robotic technologies,” she wrote in her official bio, “which are bound to proliferate in the coming years, impacting every aspect of their lives.”
Sometimes the job meant working with developers to find ways to adapt systems to human society. Other times it meant convincing humans that robots aren’t the threat that decades of science fiction have made them out to be. Those conversations brought her to stages like TEDx, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and a three-year gig as a judge on Comedy Central’s “BattleBots” competition.
Sci-fi played its own key role in her mission statement. Pransky excitedly recounted the story of meeting Isaac Asimov, which found her bringing the legendary writer up to speed on real-world breakthroughs in the robotics field. During the meeting, Asimov deemed her “the real life Susan Calvin,” a reference to the robopsychologist character from the 1950 short-fiction collection “I, Robot,” which served as inspiration for the Will Smith film of the same name.
In an email, Texas A&M Department of Computer Science & Engineering professor Robin Murphy tells TechCrunch that despite Pransky frequently and proudly recounting the story, the comparison isn’t entirely apt.
“Joanne was very proud that Isaac Asimov called her the real Susan Calvin, which was odd because Susan Calvin was unpleasant, a loner, never smiled, didn’t have a husband or a family — the opposite of Joanne,” writes Murphy. “But it makes sense — if there was one woman to represent what Asimov wanted robotics to be, versus a stock character, it would be Joanne.”
Murphy was the first to announce the news of Pransky’s passing. In her tribute on Robohub, she notes, “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.”
Robots can assist us and improve our lives in so many ways, but they will not experience the human condition. They will not get butterflies in their stomach from doing a TEDx talk. They will not feel euphoria from laughing so uncontrollably hard that they cry. They will not empathize with the human heartbreak that comes from losing a loved one. Robots are not the same as us and we should not use the same terminology to characterize their responses. Attributing an expression such as artificial empathy to a machine may only lead to confusion and the assumption that machines emote like us, especially as our view of what is artificial, and what is real, becomes blurred. Humans learn empathy from other humans face to face.
This week, the non-profit group Women in Robotics quietly launched a scholarship in Pransky’s name. The fund, which is currently soliciting donations via Bold.org, is focused on encouraging women and non-binary students to pursue careers in the field of robotics.
“We have an online global community and local events in many cities that are centers for robotics. Robotics is a rapidly growing field and we need more women and underrepresented people in the robotics community,” the organization notes. “Our first scholarship, the Joanne Pransky Celebration of Women in Robotics, is for undergraduates and incoming freshman, encouraging them to explore robotics courses.”