10 Standout Nerds of 2011


Cynthia Breazeal

Whether you're a sci-fi nerd or an ordinary civilian, whenever you hear the word "robot," you probably think of "Star Wars'" C-3PO or the profane, wise-cracking, booze-swilling Bender on the animated TV series "Futurama." You probably don't think of a Predator Drone, or some personality-less robotic arm toiling away in an auto factory in South Korea.

We like robots with anthropomorphic qualities, who look, act and communicate more like us than like soulless machines. That's where Cynthia Breazeal comes in. As the founder of the Personal Robots Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, she's leading a program to develop a future generation of personal robots, if not robots with personality. Already, Breazeal has some impressive achievements in the robotics field. Her lab has produced a number of robots designed to interact with people. For example, with the help of the late Hollywood special effects wiz Stan Winston, she created Leonardo, an automaton with plushy fur, capable of making facial expressions and complex gestures, and even of learning simple tasks. In 2006, Wired magazine chose Leonardo as one of the "50 Best Robots Ever" [source: Capps].

In 2011, Breazeal oversaw researchers' development of projects such as the Huggable, a teddy-bear-like therapeutic companion, designed to provide the same sort of emotional feedback to humans that they might get from a companion animal. Huggable's plush, cuddly appearance conceals a synthetic skin equipped with more than 1,500 sensors, video cameras, microphones and wireless networking capabilities, designed to perform movements, gestures and expressions in a way that conveys "a personality-rich character, not a robotic artificact" [source: Personal Robots Group].