Featured Article

Remembering Joanne Pransky

Women in Robotics launches a new scholarship in the ‘Robotic Psychiatrist’s’ name

Comment

Joanne Pransky
Image Credits: Bill Watters / Getty Images

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.”

You can also learn more about Pransky in her own words on her YouTube channel, RobotMD. This bit from her TEDx talk, Robot on the Couch, seems to sum up her mission statement best:

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 nonprofit 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.”

Andra Keay, who serves as the organization’s president, tells TechCrunch, “As a pioneer in the field of social robotics and the sales and marketing of robots and robotics journals, Joanne was very often the only woman in the room. She went out of her way to make other women newer to the field feel comfortable, and was one of the first members and supporters of the Women in Robotics organization. Joanne’s passion, her compassion for others, and her infectious joy in robotics will be missed. We hope that people will come visit The Joanne Pransky Museum of Social Robots in Oakland and donate to the Joanne Pransky Women in Robotics Scholarship, to support young women entering the robotics industry.”
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. 

More TechCrunch

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

2 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more