Tasha McCauley - Cool Robot Chick

Photo credit: Royce Gorsuch

Photo credit: Royce Gorsuch

I met Tasha McCauley at a conference called HATCH.  What is HATCHHATCH is a community, a movement, and a series of experiences designed to unite creative thought leaders to HATCH a better world.

When I first met Tasha, I thought she was one cool chick.  She was beautiful, had a quiet confidence about her and she totally rocked a plain plaid shirt and a pair of jeans.  She had a telepresence robot with her that she had actually built.  I found out she was an uber smart roboticist.  Beautiful and smart, impressive. 

My goal is to inspire this readership by introducing exceptionally creative people outside the toy and game industry.  I am so honored to include Tasha in this series of HATCH interviews as she pushes the envelope in her field of robotics.  Thank you for participating Tasha!

In one sentence, who are you?

I’m the sum of many inputs, mostly arts and sciences, which can make for some surprising collisions.

What was your favorite toy or game as a child?

I had an audio cassette called “Little Thinker.” I’d put it on, and the narrator would lead me through a world, describing things and asking me to imagine them. I loved the sounds—the creak of a door opening, her footsteps echoing in a big open room, a car engine starting—and she would talk about what she was seeing. Every few minutes she would give me an idea to ponder, and some music would play for a bit, giving me time to think and draw. Although the tape played the same story each time, the way I imagined it was always new. 

How do you activate creativity?

I begin to work. The various engines in me that like to solve problems respond when they are given a compelling challenge.

What is your Superpower?

My nervous system, which processes the world in ways I can’t even comprehend. I get a fantastic free ride on systems that have been optimized by millions of years of evolution.

What is your place of inspiration?

Nature. And the machine shop.

Who is or has been your mentor? How has s/he influenced your thinking?

A great mentor in my life is Alan Kay, pioneering computer scientist and all-around wonderful thinker. I went to an elementary school called Open School, where Alan had launched an educational technology program, with support from Apple Computer. The aim of the program was to help integrate the physical, multi-sensory world and the world of information contained in textbooks. 

The school had one computer for every two students, which was pretty unheard of in the early 90s, and the brilliant thing was that we didn’t use the computers as substitutes for existing classroom media like books or pencils. We used them to create our own learning environments. We learned to code and used dynamic authoring tools like HyperCard, a pre-World Wide Web hypermedia system, to do our assignments. We studied animals in their environments, and we then modeled the animals’ behavior in HyperCard programs. We studied physical properties and interactions, and modeled these as well. It was a beautiful way to internalize powerful lessons in biology, physics, sociology, etc.

The programs we built reminded me of toys—intuitive graphical toys that enabled us to convey ideas in delightful and profound ways. Many of the projects we made were themselves educational games.

I’ve been lucky to have Alan as a mentor in my adult life as well, especially because the style of thinking I learned in elementary school lends power to the ideas he shares with me as an adult. 

We met at HATCH, a community that unites creative thought leaders to hatch a better world. How would you help to HATCH a better world?

I would love to create or promote tools that teach thinking.

Some powerful programs have been developed toward this goal, such as Six Thinking Hats — a thinking tool developed by Edward de Bono. We learned some of this at Open School. Briefly, it teaches how to view problems through different frames; analogical thinking across domains. Teaching thinking itself can be powerful, and yet it is something we have yet to really implement at scale.

When is breaking the rules okay?

When the rules are from a paradigm whose time is coming to an end.

When we met at HATCH, you had a telepresence robot with you. Can you tell me more about this?

The robot that you met was the first robot that we built for consumers—a telepresence robot that allows a person to video-chat into it and move around a remote location, interacting with people and environments.

We actually built that bot in response to a direct need: one of our colleagues wanted to come up to NASA Research Park for the launch of an educational program he had started, but his twin babies had just been born and he needed to stay home. He asked us to buy him a telepresence robot so that he could attend the opening ceremony and meet the students. We looked into it, but decided that buying one would be too expensive. So we offered to build him one.

Within a matter of hours, we had built a simple, working telepresence bot. In doing so, we had learned a lesson: by paying attention to the progress of exponential technology, and the pricing of components, we could build a robot with most of the functionality of other telepresence robots on the market, but at a fraction of the cost. Our first generation work was the result of a simultaneous drop in price of several key components, which made an inexpensive telepresence bot instantly possible. We simply moved quickly to capture this opportunity.

The world is changing so quickly. As you are a technology entrepreneur, you must see this a lot first-hand.  For better or worse, how does this effect what you do?

It causes me to value slowness and depth. There’s a great quote from Marshall McLuhan: “The greatest discovery of the 21st century will be the discovery that Man was not meant to live at the speed of light.” He understood that human evolution was intrinsically coupled to the natural world.

However, I also appreciate that one of the fundamental characteristics of being a human is using tools to enhance our natural capabilities. And as we go forward, and as technology becomes further integrated into our biological experience, what it means to be human will likely shift. The future of human evolution may not be quite so coupled with the natural world.

It seems to me that telepresence robots are a really cool robotic innovation, how do you see them changing our world?

It’s all about amplifying and extending our senses. As we develop new ways of doing this, we will have entirely new insights and will be able to think of new tools.

Do you feel that it is possible for telepresence robots to become commonplace in an average person’s world?

Piece by piece. The audio and video components are already commonplace. Cost reduction, integration and scaling will make it possible for a bot with basic physical attributes (reach and movement in the world) to be available, in some way, to a great many people in the years to come.

How do you approach the unknown?

Optimistically and skeptically! I guess I should clarify that by skeptically, I don’t mean cynically. Both are Greek in origin. Cynical, in early English, denoted faultfinding, while skeptical means “to consider or examine.” I’m skeptical because I love pushing limits in order to understand how things really work. And I’m optimistic because, so far in my life, the unknown has revealed many wonderful possibilities.

If you could be a farmer, what would you farm or what would be on your farm?

If I can define farmer to mean someone who grows food from natural elements, then I suppose I’d like to have a nanofactory, and work on a molecular level to combine elements to create any kind of food imaginable (as well as pretty much any kind of material imaginable).

But if we’re limiting it to agriculture as it currently exists, then: beets, zucchini, pumpkins, celery, broccoli, and yams.

If you could only have one tool to create with on a desert island, what would it be?

The above-mentioned nanofactory. But is that kind of like using one of your three wishes to wish for more wishes?

You can give one object (the same object) to everyone in the world. What is it, and why?

Since this sounds like a wish, and you didn’t specify when, I would wait twenty years to act on it. Changes in the power and size of technology will result in unimaginably potent tools in twenty years. And, hopefully, I’ll have learned much more about what might be important for all people to have in their hands.

Which activities make you lose track of time?

Activities that involve making things with my hands. Machining, drawing, sewing. Recently I made a puppet for my boyfriend. It took me way longer than I’d anticipated, but I had so much fun doing it that I didn’t feel a moment go by.

When was the last time you laughed out loud?  What caused it?

A few minutes ago, in response to a joke my friend told me:

Q: What does the ‘B’ in Benoît B. Mandelbrot stand for?

A: Benoît B. Mandelbrot.

What are your thoughts on robotics in the toy and game industry?

Robots provide an excellent opportunity for people to learn how to represent ideas about the world in code, and to extend these ideas into reality with a body. I imagine a world in which robotic toys become extremely relatable and lifelike. If these toys are able to listen and understand well and, in opportune moments, to respond with age-appropriate teachings, the future is very hopeful indeed.

Thanks, Tasha, for a great interview!