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Beyond "The Matrix"

Beyond "The Matrix"Thoughshe calls herself a ‘robot psychiatrist,’ Tufts graduateJoanne Pransky aims to help humans allay their fears about thefuture of technology. Medford/Somerville,Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.16.04] From The Terminator to The Matrix, popular science fiction films have often spelled out a future where robots and other technology have broken free of human inventors and run amok. The concept is more fiction than science, but the public appears at least a little wary nonetheless that technology may one day have a mind of its own. Enter Joanne Pransky, a futurist and Tufts graduate, who is determined to change our minds about the robots yet to come.

"I think it's always been a human goal to have some other being that's not a human but that's like a human," Pransky told the Palm Beach Post. "Man has always devised models to emulate humans or human function."

Pransky, who earned a degree in child development from Tufts, has dedicated her life to robots - or rather, preparing the rest of us for them. A consultant and publicist for the robotics industry for more than 20 years, Pransky wants to bring her vision of robots into the mainstream.

"Industrial robots are in wide use, and most engineers understand the underlying technology," the Tufts graduate told Design News. "But your average person on the street hasn't had much opportunity to interact with robots, outside of what they've seen on TV."

Not content to let television be the world's only insight into the future of technology, Pransky took measures into her own hands - publishing articles on robotics, speaking to national and international audiences, and declaring herself the first ever "robo-psychiatrist."

"My goal, by humorously proclaiming myself as the World's First Robotic Psychiatrist 18 years ago, was to educate the public," Pransky told the popular technology news website Slashdot. "My objective was to make them aware of robotics - a technology that will have more of an impact on their lives than the automobile, PC, and the internet - by ‘translating' the technology so that the public can understand the benefits as opposed to fearing them."

Human fear of evolving technology - which manifests itself in everything from movies to legislation - is common, said Pransky, but rarely justified.

"When personal computers first came out, some people were saying, ‘I don't want a computer. It's going to take my job away,'" Pransky told the Post. "And we know that didn't happen. It became a tool. But if you don't learn that tool, how can it help you? Robots are tools. They take all forms and shapes. They help us; they don't replace us."

Robots are growing increasingly common in every day households, taking shape in the form of machines such as the automated vacuum cleaner "Roomba" and the robo-dog "Aibo," said Pransky (who entered her Aibo in a dog show earlier this year) - but these are only the beginning.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with having robots as companions or helpers," Pransky - who was a judge on the Comedy Central TV show BattleBots - told the Post. "[Isaac] Asimov made robots friends and companions. He was the first to see them as positive influences in lives."

A long-time follower of Asimov - who revolutionized science fiction with his compassionate portrayals of robots - Pransky developed a correspondence with him during the novelist's later years. Her enthusiasm for robotics caused Asimov to dub her the "real Susan Calvin" - a central character and chief robopsychologist in many of his novels (including I, Robot).

It's a role Pransky embraces as she continues on her humorous quest to bring robots to the people.

As she told Slashdot, "If a non-engineering five-foot-tall woman understands the technology, subliminally, so will the rest of the public."

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