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.
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.