meet the maker: jennifer barry

in meet the makers by Rethink Robotics

An interview with rethinker Jennifer Barry by Ann Whittaker, co-founder and vp of hr at rethink robotics.

AW: Jenny, you seem completely immersed and joyful, whether you’re writing code or engaging with Baxter. How did you become fascinated by robots and know you wanted to build them?

JB: I’ve liked math and logic puzzles my whole life, but I didn’t get into robotics until college. My first robot was a round red Magellan called Frodo. I spent half of my sophomore year of college trying to figure out why that robot wouldn’t do anything except spin in circles and crash into chairs. Actually, it eventually crashed into one too many chairs and caught fire. Trying to program that thing was completely maddening, and I absolutely couldn’t stop.

Rethinkers Jennifer Barry (far right), Marissa Mocenigo and Chef Baxter.
Rethinkers Jennifer Barry (far right), Marissa Mocenigo and Chef Baxter.

AW: You studied alongside your brother at MIT, and speak of having a truly supportive family; a terrific foundation for any young woman to pursue her own path. What else do you think is key to inspiring girls to excel in STEM education? How do we ensure that girls have the opportunity to develop themselves and achieve as you have?

JB: Haha, my family is almost certainly reading so now they know I talk about them at work. Hi guys!

This is a hard question. If I really had an answer, I would probably be working on that instead. To get students to excel at STEM fields, we need to teach them to enjoy math and science enough to do it on their own time. Most of the students in my eighth grade class hated math because we had way too much math homework. An excellent way to sour a child on math is to reduce it to tedious busy-work and force them to do it in their free time. There are so many ways to make math and science fun. In fact, one of the best side benefits of this job is getting to show the robot off to school groups. Middle school students are the most enthusiastic visitors we get here at Rethink. They usually ask more insightful questions than the adults.

You don’t have to have robots or chemistry equipment to make STEM fields interesting. There are a lot of good math puzzles that don’t require even a piece of paper. For example, here is one of my favorites:

You have a hall of 100 closed doors and you have 100 people. The first person goes down the hall and opens every door. The second person goes down the hall and closes every other door. The third person goes down the hall and reverses the state (opens a closed door or closes an open door) of every third door. If this pattern continues, after the 100th person has walked down the hall, which doors are open and which are closed?

Show students how much fun math and science are and excellence should follow.

AW: Tell us about the coolest things you’ve built to date.

JB: I’m actually terrible at building things. I tell people I build robots, but the truth is that I program robots. One of my favorite projects was a force controller that some friends and I wrote for a humanoid robot at MIT. My friend was working on robotic cookie-baking and we used the controller to stir batter and open the oven door. Later, a group in Germany used it for drawing and a group at Cornell used it for cutting up vegetables. That controller was the first software I wrote that was used by someone I didn’t know.

AW: Now tell us about what you’d like to build in the future; or about the future you’d like to build.

JB: Clearly I’m excited about robotics. Robots right now are where computers were in the late seventies. They ought to be extremely useful but no one has figured out exactly how. I think that in a few decades robotics will be part of everyday life and I hope to be a part of that transformation.

More personally, my dad and I have been working for years on a robot that is supposed to do basic chores like opening the door for a pizza delivery or fetching snacks from the refrigerator. After about a decade of work, it can navigate autonomously around my parents’ house and we’re working on getting it to pick up clutter. We’d like to have it do the dishes, but combining water and robots usually leads to disaster.


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2 comments on this article

Michelle January 19, 2015 at 7:51 pm

Hi, excellent interview and post. I will share with my sons and nieces who love math and science. I especially appreciated Jennifer’s assessment of teaching math and science from a more hands-on, inspired approach. Unfortunately, for me, I avoided math at all costs because of the boring, tedious teaching delivery, but I loved science and statistics. I am currently a marketing communications professional working for an interactive technical training company in Connecticut and I came across your company via today’s Plastics News article. In any case since I am really horrible at math I was wondering if you would share the answer to the puzzle in the post? When I share it with my sons I have to be prepared to know the answer. Somehow I get the feeling that the answer is incredibly obvious. Oh well, a casualty of a faulty math education. Thank you in advance.

Eric Foellmer January 21, 2015 at 1:08 pm

Hi Michelle, thanks for your question. Below is Jenny’s response and the answer to the puzzle!

The doors that are perfect squares (1, 4, 9, 16, etc) will be open and all the others will be closed. The key is to look at which people touch which doors. For example, person 5 touches doors 5, 10, 15, 20, etc while person 7 touches doors 7, 14, 21, etc. Flipping that on its head, we get that people 1, 2, 5, and 10 touch door 10 while people 1, 7, and 49 touch door 49. More generally, a door will be touched exactly by its factors. The doors start closed so if a door is touched an even number of times, it will end closed while if a door is touched an odd number of times it will end open. Almost all numbers have an even number of factors because you have to multiply two of the factors together to get the original number (1*10=10, 2*5=10). The exceptions are the perfect squares where a single factor multiplied by itself gives the original number (1*49 = 49, 7*7 = 49). Thus only the perfect squares are open after all the people pass through the hallway.

To the original commenter: the answer is not at all obvious! However, the reason I like it is that there is a way to get to it without happening upon the chain of reasoning I outlined above (and no one just jumps to that immediately) and without actually working out all 100 doors. If you have the time to figure out what happens to the first 10 doors, you see that doors 1, 4, and 9 are open and can guess the pattern. This isn’t as much work as it sounds like because no one beyond the first 10 people matter for the first 10 doors and you see that as soon as you get to the 11th person. Once you see the pattern, you can work out why it’s the case.

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