“Engineering is For Helping People”: Xconomist of the Week Yoky Matsuoka

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started YokyWorks. I started to work with my students, that was when I was at CMU, and said, “Hey, let’s take this problem and see if we can build something.”

And then that really started to combine with another motive of really recruiting more women, more girls, into the field of robotics and training them in science and engineering. I had gone through it. I was a girl, growing up. [Laughter.] I hid the fact that I liked science and engineering. When I ask the girls now, “Well, what do you want to do when you grow up?” many of them say, “You know, I just want to help people.” And it seems like engineering is not about that, because engineering is this hard, clunky, gear-y thing. They say, “If I become a nurse, if I do business, I’ll end up being able to help people.”

Well, it doesn’t have to be that way at all. I think that’s where YokyWorks comes in as a tool, to actually recruit those girls. To say “Well, you actually might want to start brushing up on your math and science.” And to show them. We partnered up with a junior high school in Seattle and had sixth grade and seventh grade girls who came in and spent time in the lab and some time at YokyWorks who got exposed to the fact that engineering is for helping people. And these girls are sticking with science and engineering, and that is really great.

X: You were getting a lot of attention for your work in neurobotics, but now you’re working at Nest, which is building the next generation of home monitoring technology for energy. Why was that a logical transition for you?

YM: When you think about how much energy you use every day at your house, it turns out about 50 percent of the energy is spent heating and cooling your house. You think about turning off the lights, but you don’t worry too much about what would happen if we made the house two degrees colder. That would save a lot, lot more than turning off the lights. This is such a big opportunity—to really start being smart about it.

[At this point Matsouoka showed a Nest promo video.] Now, people in this room full of roboticists are probably looking at that and going, “Yeah, simple technology, I could program that tomorrow.” And they could be right. But the starting point is interesting. I teamed up with the people who basically built the first-generation iPod and iPhone. And the combination of some of the robotic technology and what we know, combined with that beautiful package and the human connection that they can get, really finally gets this into people’s homes.

And this may be a very different path for robotics to get into people’s homes. But it is a way, and it’s actually a unique and different way that has to be tried. So I feel that now we are building this brand new kind of robot that hasn’t been built, coming from the consumer product side, not the research side of robotics, but still using the same technology and the same people. Maybe we can meet halfway somewhere to achieve the same goal.

X: So in a way, you’re saying a home is sort of a robot—it has all kinds of sensors and actuators—it just has a terrible interface. One way of looking at it could be that you are building a much cooler interface for the robot that is your house.

YM: Yeah. It doesn’t have to have eyes and a mouth. This really is the entry point. If you look back at the thermostat you have in your home today you will realize it’s not the prettiest thing, unless you have Nest. Robotics has always been thought of as something that’s sexy, but there wouldn’t be a place for it in a normal home. This is a nice way to get it in there.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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