Article: Girls, robots, and the art of tinkering

By Carla Diana for Co.Design.

Most designers and engineers have childhood stories about fantastic Lego creations or amazing home-built projects that hinted at their early propensity toward design. For me, my nascent interest in mechanics manifested itself in my Matchbox car collection. One day, a neighbor’s mother saw me with my miniature parking lot and cried, “Cars are for boys! Those aren’t for you!”

Decades later, I still remember that moment. It was my first real awareness that my penchants didn’t fulfill gender expectations. But I wasn’t deterred. I embraced my “oddball” identity all the way through engineering school (where I was one of two women in a class of 40), through industrial design studies, and into job roles that have always been challenging, inspiring, fundamentally technical, and male-dominated.


Though I take pride in my career path, I remember facing a good deal of confidence-dashing resistance from people with old-fashioned gender definitions. Unfortunately, many young women and girls defer to these expectations. According to the Industrial Design Society of America, only 11.5% of its professional members are women and the more technical areas of design have even fewer. In a recent Fast Company article ,“Ladies Who Hack,” Jed Lipinksi describes how social stigmas can prevent women from getting into programming: “Less than 20% of undergraduate computer-science and engineering degrees are given to women, and big tech companies are almost entirely run by men.”

With so few women designing hardware/software solutions, it’s no wonder that many women don’t relate well to the products being made. In fact, a poll at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show found that only 1% of women felt that manufacturers had them in mind when they were developing electronic products. This divide between the designers (mainly technically oriented men) and the users of electronic stuff (the rest of the population) limits the full potential of technology. To bolster the development of game-changing developments, the field needs to attract a more diverse group of developers and designers, especially more women.

New tools, new attitudes

During the early 2000s, I lived in San Francisco. I reveled in the emerging art and technology scenes and observed how a revised take on DIY led to new attitudes toward technology. It put electronics know-how in the hands of a more diverse demographic. At the same time, the new Arduino platform for electronics was taking the community by storm, making it easier than ever to wire up your own robot or gizmo. Then the launch of Make Magazine spread technical DIY information to an even broader audience.

Make’s founder, Dale Dougherty wanted to do for electronics hacking what Popular Mechanics did for wood craftsmanship. While of the magazine contained spreads reminiscent of 1950s tableaus of fathers and sons making stuff in garage shops (a poignant reminder of how making wasn’t for girls), a new explosion of accessible tools and publicly available technical information actually attracted more women to the field.

A cover of the male-focused Popular Mechanics Magazine, July 1959 issue, and the more inclusive MAKE Magazine, Volume 10, May 2007

The LilyPad Arduino

Around the same time Make came around, a variation of Arduino, called the LilyPad Arduino, was being developed by Leah Buchely at MIT’s Hi-Lo Tech lab. Buchely focused on creating a platform for electronics that could be embedded in clothing and soft goods. By replacing wires with conductive thread–a simple but fundamental change–electronic components like lights and speakers and switches could be sewn directly into the fabric. Because most people already know basic sewing (whereas wiring and soldering can require new learning), the LilyPad opened the electronics scene to a far greater number of participants.

This was particularly exciting for girls. Because the system is based on sewing (a traditionally “female” activity), an entire set of skills around technology and science suddenly became more accessible to girls. Wearable computing classes saw the number of girls rise and thrive in workshops previously favored by boys. Unsurprisingly, in 2010, the MIT researcher Benjamin Mako Hill found 65% of LilyPad-based project creators were female, compared to only 2% for the basic Arduino.

Hill describes the phenomenon further in “On Feminism and Microcontrollers“, claiming that LilyPad projects are more imaginative, since the inventions and applications are more unexpected and come from a more diverse group of creators. He writes, “Although LilyPad and Arduino are the same chips and the same code, we suggest that LilyPad’s design, and the way the platform is framed, leads to different types of projects that appeal to different types of people. For example, Arduino seems likely to find its way into an interaction design project or a fighting robot. LilyPad seems more likely to find its way into a smart and responsive textile.”

A sample embroidery project centered around the Lilypad Arduino board. Photo and embroidery by Becky Stern

Social robots open new doors

Robotics has also been a traditionally male-dominated clubhouse. But in the past two decades, a shift toward “socially aware machines” (social robotics) has drawn women to the field. As technology has enabled more sophisticated programmed behaviors, machines have evolved to interact with us by communicating through spoken words, gestures, and other social cues.

These robots blend hard-core computer science with an understanding of psychology and social science–fields that have generally appealed more to women. It’s therefore not surprising that many of the leaders in this field, like Cynthia BreazealAndrea Thomaz, and Jodi Forlizzi, are women. In this specialty, being able to empathize and express emotion is just as important as knowing mechanics and computer programming, and like the LilyPad, these female-centric skill sets have opened the door for women to succeed in an area where they were previously underrepresented.

I, too, was intrigued by this area, so I joined the core team for the creation of Simon, a socially aware robot, while I was teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Simon project is focused on crafting a machine that people can interact with in a natural, human way. You can gesture in front of it, talk to it and even hand it objects. The robot responds with emotional expressions that are easy for humans to understand, like shrugging its shoulders when it doesn’t understand, blinking a colored light when it recognizes an object, or even talking. It has a humanoid form, meaning that it sports arms, hands, a torso and head features such as eyelids and eyeballs that move to communicate and show what the robot is “thinking”. It can recognize objects and actively learn instructions on what to do–like putting certain colored objects in a matching colored bin–just through interacting with people. The goal is to have a robot that doesn’t require any learning to use because you interact with it intuitively, the way you would another person. The mix of social and electronic skills I learned during the robot design work is something that I use daily in my work at Smart Design, and it’s becoming more valuable to industry as people have come to expect their products to communicate and respond in more sophisticated ways through light, sound, screens and movement.

My very first project at Smart Design happened to be for a company called Neato Robotics, a client that understood the importance of building an emotional connection between people and products. With many groundbreaking features that would be new to consumers, the team focused on how it could best communicate what the product was doing in human terms by using words, iconography and even facial expressions. Though the Simon project was driven by academic research, I have been able to draw a great deal of learning from the field of social robotics and apply it to products that we use in our everyday lives by thinking about ways that products can have expressive behaviors and then building an abstracted version of those animated responses into the design. [How? We can’t glean much from the description of either project, so it’s difficult for readers to make that connection.]

Simon is a socially aware humanoid robot platform currently under development at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab, led by Dr. Andrea Thomaz (right).

The future of technology

Seeing the changing attitudes toward girls and technology has been especially exciting for me. Although I had no exposure to woodshop classes and building techniques in high school, my own alma mater, the Marymount School for Girls in New York City, recently approached me to discuss their plans to install a “Fab Lab,  a workshop built around fabrication techniques such as laser cutting and 3D printing. The idea of girls having this formative, hands-on experience in digital making and design technology is an indication that the skills associated with science, technology engineering, and math are no longer considered male-only. “Girls are just as good as boys at this stuff,” says Jaymes Dec, the program manager at Greenfab, an NSF-funded Fab Lab for high school students in the Bronx. “They are great at working through logic and manipulating small parts like electronics with their hands.”

By involving girls today, we are preparing more women for technology-focused design fields in the future. Areas that have long been male-dominated will surely see a rise in women, due to shifts in tools, skill sets, and collaborative systems. This involvement will not only change demographics but contribute new innovations and business opportunities, which will undoubtedly emerge from fresh attitudes and approaches to science and technology. And soon we’ll hear that many more than 1% of women feel that manufacturers took them into account when designing an electronic gadget.

Originally posted on Fast Company.