Cynthia Breazeal: Will Robots Like Jibo Take Your Job?

Cynthia Breazeal: Will Robots Like Jibo Take Your Job?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Many people worry about the consequences of tech innovation, in particular: how will automation and robots impact our jobs? I sat down to explore the impact of robots and the chance of “robo-apocalypse” with social robot pioneer Cynthia Breazeal, founder of the Jibo Robot and professor at MIT. Jibo is a desk top robot that acts like a personal assistant for the family. It can see, hear, speak, dance, and according to its makers, it can even “relate to people.” Imagine a cross between R2D2, an iPad and the Pixar lamp. Breazeal explains how she sees the big “value add” of social robots and why she thinks the potential unintended consequences of robots demands a thoughtful dialogue between robot experts.

Excerpts of this interview were featured on my BBC World Service Report: Elon Musk, Cynthia Breazeal Explain Why Robots Are Coming To Your Home

Here are highlights of our discussion (comments have been shortened for length and clarity):

van Diggelen: Will robots take our jobs, and why are we obsessed by that?

Breazeal: When robotics first came onto the market, it was about replacing human labor, so that’s been the assumption: When any robot is introduced, “it’s about replacing people.”

Social robotics as a whole research discipline has been about a very different paradigm, which is about partnership. It’s about robots that can support and collaborate with people. Jibo is not being designed to replace anyone or anything. Sometimes peole talk about it’s going to replace my dog….it’s not about that. Jibo creates a different kind of relationship.

van Diggelen: What is Jibo?

Breazeal: Jibo breaks down barriers (for people uncomfortable with tech gadgets) by feeling much more like a someone than a something. In my research at MIT, we’ve put very sophisticated humanoid robots, you name it, but when you create that experience for people, that familiar, warm experience, people respond to it. I think Jibo has an appeal across a much broader demographic.

Jibo is about supporting the family, supporting those who help care for the family, doctors and nurses…helps make the whole human and technological network stronger and better able to serve human values. That’s the big “value add” of this kind of technology and that’s certainly where my heart is because certainly as a mom, I completely understand the value and importance of the human connection and the human relationships. And we have human responsibilities to each other. Technology should not be mitigating that or interfering with that. We want technology to really support that.

Cynthia Breazeal with Jibo

van Diggelen: We’ve had warnings from Elon Musk, from Stephen Hawking saying artificial intelligence needs some regulation…they’re concerned about this “robo-apocalypse” happening, so talk to that…

Breazeal: I think in terms of the “robo-apocalypse”…we love that theme (laughter). Throughout our stories, our legends…

van Diggelen: Movies

Breazeal: In many ways, it’s a tool that we use as a culture to ask the question: What does it mean to be human? I really think it stems from that. So whether it’s aliens or killer viruses or robots, it is that “otherness” that pushes up against our humanity; that causes us to reflect upon the human condition. For robots, because they have existed in our science fiction long before we could actually build them, this is our cultural undercurrent people can’t help but go there no matter what.

van Diggelen: But the difference is, it’s not some luddites who’re saying this: it’s people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates…warning people about the dangers of artificial intelligence.

Breazeal: Right so…there’s a difference between the apocalypse versus there could be unintended consequences that we need to be mindful of. So I’m agreeing that with any technology capable of tremendous impact on how we live our lives, there’s always those two sectors. Certainly with robotics, I certainly believe that it’s going to become a pervasive technology in our lives, so it is worth considering, how do we go for the good and avoid the bad?

van Diggelen: But how do you do that? From where you’re sitting, does it need government regulation, standards? What’s the best way to proceed?

Breazeal: I’m not sure we honestly know…the bottom line is: it starts with us and having thoughtful dialogue and discussion to try to really understand what the opportunities and the unintended consequences really could be, before we start jumping to conclusions. I think the most important thing we can do right now is to have this thoughtful dialogue. Even things we started off with, like peoples’ assumptions (that) all robots are about replacing people versus this other side: robots are about supporting people.

Find out more about Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series and our BBC World Service Reports

BBC Letter from Silicon Valley by Alison van Diggelen: Sexism in Silicon Valley

BBC Letter from Silicon Valley by Alison van Diggelen: Sexism in Silicon Valley

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Are women in Silicon Valley tech doomed? Do they need to “lean in” more? 

After Ellen Pao lost her discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins last week, some said the discussion was closed. On the contrary, her case has spotlighted an important issue and sparked a lively conversation about the dearth of women in Silicon Valley tech companies and what can be done about it. 

I was invited to share a Letter from Silicon Valley with the BBC about Sexism in Silicon Valley.  It aired this week on the BBC World Service program BBC Business Daily.


The program was hosted by Manuela Saragosa and included a report by Gianna Palmer about the impact of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. My Letter from Silicon Valley starts at 07:00.

Saragosa: There is a perception that women are still not being treated as equals in the tech industry in the US. It all came to a head in Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination case against her former employer KPCB, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. She lost her case last week but despite that, it’s highlighted concerns about the lack of diversity in the tech sector in the U.S. So just how bad is it? Over to our commentator, Alison van Diggelen in Silicon Valley…

van Diggelen:

“Women in Silicon Valley tech are doomed!”

That’s one of the comments I heard at a recent gathering of female executives here in Silicon Valley. It came from a manager who’s spent 20 years working in tech human resources. She and her colleagues described the double standard they’ve witnessed at tech firms: women being passed over for promotion, paid less than men and treated as second class citizens.

Last year, major tech companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn published their diversity figures, which underline the sad fact that – at best – 15% of their tech engineering teams are female. The number of women choosing to study computer science is now half of what it was in the ‘80s.

It’s hard to find a woman in Silicon Valley tech who hasn’t experienced some biased treatment at work, because of her sex. Women are expected to be agreeable, generous collaborators, and always look good. One female executive talked about traditional expectations: “We’re supposed to be at home, nuzzling newborns,” she said.

Alison van Diggelen at London's BBC studio

Why does all this matter?

Gender imbalance in tech is a problem for everyone and it needs to be tackled for three vital reasons: innovation, competitive advantage and the bottom line.

1. Studies show, the more diverse your team, the more innovative it is. Since Silicon Valley’s whole modus operandi is innovation and inventing the future, making tech teams more diverse should be a no brainer.

2.Given tech companies are making products for a diverse world population, the more teams are representative of their market, the more chance it’ll make consumer-pleasing products and gain a competitive advantage.

3. There’s a correlation between the number of female executives and success rates of companies. A recent study by the Kauffman Foundation found that companies with the highest representation of women in their top management achieved better financial performance than other companies.

As Hillary Clinton said at a recent Silicon Valley conference,

“Inclusivity is more than a buzzword, it’s a recipe for 21st century success.”

The fact that companies are “coming out” about their diversity stats, and acknowledging there’s a problem, is a great first step.

But much more should be done.

Facebook, LinkedIn and the Anita Borg Institute recently announced a partnership to support female tech students at college and increase the number of women joining the tech ranks.

The pipeline issue is crucial. Encouraging more women to choose computer science at college will help reverse current trends. Megan Smith, America’s Chief Technology Officer is right when she says mandatory computer science needs to start in second grade.

But it’s going to take strong leadership within companies to bolster these efforts and provide an inclusive environment that’s welcoming to women and gives them the respect and opportunities they deserve.

LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner says that with two young daughters, gender imbalance is now a personal matter for him. He and other SV leaders must commit to real change for the long term.

No. Women in Silicon Valley tech are not doomed.

I remain hopeful that the valley will mature and get beyond this ugly adolescent phase…

For the BBC World Service in Silicon Valley, this is Alison van Diggelen



Many thanks to all the wise women who contributed to this Letter from Silicon Valley. I hope the conversation will continue and the issue of bias (both conscious and unconscious) and gender discrimination will be tackled head on.

To read more on this topic at Fresh Dialogues, click here



Heidi Roizen: Entrepreneurship, Mentors & Relationships

Heidi Roizen: Entrepreneurship, Mentors & Relationships

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Heidi Roizen has been on both sides of the entrepreneur funding divide, so her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is particularly potent. She’s an operating partner at venture capitalists DFJ, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford University and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Last month, I interviewed Roizen at the Commonwealth Club, Silicon Valley. That interview led to many more questions about what it takes to succeed, especially the need to build meaningful relationships. Here’s our deeper exploration:

van Diggelen: You teach entrepreneurship at Stanford University: What are the top 5 lessons for being a successful entrepreneur?

Roizen: When we study and meet with successful entrepreneurs, while each has a different path to success, they all exhibit similar mindsets.  For one, they seem to go through life looking at problems as things for which there can be a solution — i.e. they do not accept the status quo, no matter how ingrained.  Second, they are not afraid to iterate (or ‘fail’, i.e. learn from a mistake, course correct, and move on.)   They tend to be tenacious, that is, they view the failures along the way as necessary steps in getting to success — not as indicators that they should stop.  They tend to be very good at telling their stories, building a narrative about the problem, the solution, and what it takes to get there.  Finally, successful entrepreneurs tend to know the importance of finding and motivating awesome people to join them in their journey.

van Diggelen:  Talk about the importance of networks and the do’s and don’ts of finding and being a good mentor.

Heidi Roizen Roizen: Let me answer this by starting at the 100,000 foot level.  I’ve done a lot of reading about human happiness and I boil the answer down to having meaningful work and meaningful relationships.  I believe that if you can do meaningful work with others you build even more meaningful relationships.  I hate the word “network” as it almost has a negative connotation — none of us want to be cornered by a ‘networker’ at an industry cocktail party!  But, instead I think of ‘building a network’ as a lifelong process of forming relationships with people, finding ‘fellow travelers’ who may share a passion for the same problem that needs to be solved, a skillset that is complementary but appreciated, someone with good common sense to bounce ideas off of — whatever brings value and meaning to each of us in a human connection.  For me, those people and those relationships — new and old — help me to keep learning and keep finding new opportunities for work, for growth, for meaning. 

As for finding and being a mentor, my main piece of advice, for either the mentor or the mentee, is the relationship only works if there are shared values/ethics, and if there is something meaningful to work on together.  That is why I personally believe asking someone to simply ‘be my mentor’ is far less productive than finding for example someone to work for who you can also see as becoming your mentor.

van Diggelen: What do you mean by “living a relationship driven life” versus “a transaction driven life”? Can you give some examples?

Roizen: I’m a big believer in leading a relationship-driven life and I’ve blogged about it here.  In short, if you believe what I said above about meaningful relationships being the key to happiness (a big ask I know!)  then it makes sense that every transaction in which there are one or more others involved becomes an opportunity to build a relationship.  From my life experience, I run into the same people working in this industry over and over and over, so the quality of every transaction is important because it builds a relationship that transcends any individual transaction. 

In business school, we learned that a negotiation should be viewed as ‘an opportunity to find the maximal intersection of mutual need.’  I love this concept, instead of a transaction being ‘zero sum’, we can actually achieve a better result for both of us by putting our two heads together to solve both our problems.

van Diggelen: What’s been your hardest challenge as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?

Roizen: Almost running out of money many times.  Microsoft entering our market.  Shipping a product with a lot of bugs.  Emotional disagreements with cofounders and key contributors.  In other words, there really is no hardest challenge in entrepreneurship, rather there are a whole series of ‘near-death’ experiences.  They key is to not let them become ‘death’ experiences!  There’s no overcoming, just pushing through, getting back up, learning from your mistakes, mending fences, and moving on.  And if you fail in the big picture and your company ends up going out of business, do it with empathy and honor and in Silicon Valley, you will usually get another at-bat.

van Diggelen: How do you see Silicon Valley changing in the next 5-10 years?

Roizen: I think what makes Silicon Valley so special will continue to fuel our next 5-10 and many more years.  I do think the valley is changing in a few ways.  For one, we are spreading our attention from ‘the next cool iPhone app’ to solving some of the world’s bigger problems, which I find very exciting and frankly more fulfilling.  We are seeing technology have a far greater impact on those diverse big problems — from health to food to energy.  I am really excited to see what the next 20 years brings about!

Explore more Inspiring Women at Fresh Dialogues

Kiva cofounder, Jessica Jackley: 3 Startup Tips for Entrepreneurs

Diane von Furstenberg: Why Fear is Not an Option

Cisco’s CTO Padmasree Warrior: 7 Secrets of Success

BBC Dialogues: Hillary Clinton & Women In Tech

BBC Dialogues: Hillary Clinton & Women In Tech

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Hillary Clinton came to Silicon Valley last week and the women-in-tech community gave her a warm welcome. Her message of inclusivity, diversity and wage equality in Silicon Valley earned a standing ovation from the gathering of over 5,000 women from the worlds of tech, media and fashion. On Friday, I reported on Hillary’s speech and the drive to increase the number of women in tech for the BBC World Service programme, Business Matters. It starts at 37:10 on the BBC podcast and below.


Here is a transcript of my conversation with BBC host, Dominic Laurie. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Laurie:  Alison…you’ve been at a conference…the Lead On Watermark Conference in Silicon Valley, part of the drive to achieve more diversity in the tech industry. The thing is, when I think of some of the big tech companies that have really made global success, there is quite a lot of diversity in those companies, so what’s the problem?

van Diggelen: Well, the problem is: the stats are not echoing what you just said. 11% of executives in Silicon Valley are women, 20% of software developers overall are women. You’re in the minority if you’re a woman in tech.

Laurie: Are you talking about gender diversity, rather than ethnic diversity?

Kimberly Bryant Black Girls Code Fresh Dialogues interview Feb 2015van Diggelen: Ethnic diversity is even worse. The stats for Google are: 1% of their employee workforce is black…17% is female, 83% male. So yes, it’s pretty dire.

At this conference, the energy was high. It was electrifying actually. 5000 female executives gathered in Silicon Valley, from the worlds of tech, media and fashion. We had keynotes including Hillary Clinton, Diane von Furstenberg, Jill Abramson, Brene Brown, as well as tech luminaries like Renee James of Intel…I have a clip from Hillary’s speech where she outlined the challenges women face in the tech industry and why this is important for the wider economy, to get more women in tech.

Clinton: Inclusivity is more than a buzz word or a box to check. It is a recipe for success in the 21st Century. Bringing different perspectives and life experiences into corporate offices, engineering labs and venture funds is likely to bring fresh ideas and higher revenues. And in our increasingly multicultural country, in our increasingly interdependent world, building a more diverse talent pool can’t be just a nice to do for business, it has to be a must do.

It is still shocking: the numbers are sobering…just 11% of executives in Silicon Valley and only about 20% of software developers overall are women. One recent report on the gender pay gap in the valley found that a woman with a bachelor’s degree here tends to make 60% less than a man with the same degree. We’re going backwards in a field that is supposed to be all about moving forward.

Laurie: She’s quite a talker isn’t she? Very eloquent woman, Hillary Clinton. Alison I guess the problem is…you listed some very eminent women who were talking, and I guess inspiring people in the conference, but do some people feel that those women are so high achieving that perhaps they’re out of reach? Did you manage to speak to more “normal” people who’ve made it in tech?


Marlene Williamson CEO Watermark Fresh Dialogues interview Feb 2015

van Diggelen: Yes, I spoke to a number of women in tech.* I spoke to the CEO of Watermark, Marlene Williamson and she emphasized the need for women to do it (Lead On) for themselves, do it for other women. That’s how we get economies of scale, that’s how you build your power base. I also spoke with Kimberly Bryant who feels so strongly about this that she wants to help create a pipeline of young tech entrepreneurs and in particular, young black girls. Her nonprofit is called Black Girls Code and her whole mission is to get more black girls from (age) 7-17 exposed to computer science, get them into classes, get them into summer camps and feed the pipeline for young entrepreneurs going into tech. Ones who’re female and ready to change the world…like Zuckerberg.

Bryant: We think there’s a huge need for creating this pipeline of young tech entrepreneurs that are women. But one of my personal goals is: I really want to see a girl or woman leading a major tech company like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, or Apple….I think that having a women at the head of a tech company, a founder of a tech company of that level would do so much to really change the whole image of the whole industry being male dominated. This movement for diversity and inclusion is not just a good thing to do, I think it’s the right thing to do, (from a social equity and as a business imperative…to remain competitive.)

Laurie: I took a look at Kimberly’s website. It’s quite a cool website: Black Girls Code. Lots of interesting information…

van Diggelen: She’s doing a lot of good work and she’s actually bringing it to London…they’re hoping to seed a chapter in London this summer.

Laurie: Maybe we could have a chat to her…

Thank you so much Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues.


*Check back soon for my next report from the Watermark Lead On Conference, including interviews with Vicky Pynchon of SheNegotiates, Millennial Kate Brunkhorst of DCR Workforce and Laura Chicurel of Nextinit.


The Dream That Helped a 13-year-old Girl Survive The Holocaust

The Dream That Helped a 13-year-old Girl Survive The Holocaust

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Seventy years ago today, the prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated. Irene Weiss is one of those survivors. She was 13 years old when she was captured in Czechoslovakia, her long blond braids shaved off and her family killed in the gas chambers. Weiss sat down with me to share her inspirational story. Remarkably, it was her vivid daydreams that helped her stay alive. Listen to our conversation here:

“There will never be any hate or discrimination after this, because we will tell the world what happened: This is what a 13-year-old was daydreaming about,” she told me.

Irene shared some powerful descriptions of her time at Auschwitz. Here are some excerpts of our conversation.

On the sights and sounds:

“At night we could hear the steam engine, which makes a lot of hissing noise. We’d hear the whistle of the train arriving. Then we could hear the hum of human beings, a huge hum of sounds. And then I’d look up the road and see them coming: a huge column of women and children and elderly moving toward the gate of the gas chamber…. You could see flames, like the whole forest was burning…. The screams were blood curdling. I would stuff my fingers in my ears. I couldn’t stand it.”

On how she dealt with the pain:

“I cannot say to you that all I wanted to do is die. No! I pushed that out of my immediate grief. It was like a stone — you know, without feeling. It’s the way we deal with death…. We grieve and find a way to distance ourselves from the real, painful part of grief. You have to do that; otherwise you have to stop living, or you cry all the time … or commit suicide. Some did…. It was quite easy, by just touching the electrified fence.”

On never crying:

Holocaust survivor, Irene Weiss at 13 years oldWeiss has never let herself cry about her experiences, even to this day, despite having her beautiful braids of long, blond hair shaved off; being told by her fellow prisoners that the rest of her family had been killed (they just pointed to the chimneys); and finding a shawl belonging to her late aunt as she sorted through the mountains of prisoners’ belongings.

I asked her if she ever cries for joy, for example when she saw her children getting married.

“Well I do experience great joy from my children, endless joy,” she said. “Like all parents, it’s mixed with a little bit of fear that it should last and nothing should spoil it.”

One day soon there will be no more survivors who can tell us their story, which is all the more reason to listen closely and learn from brave women like Irene Weiss. What would it take to make her daydream a reality?

To find out more about Irene Weiss’ remarkable story, go to the Holocaust Museum site.

This interview was part of the Let’s Never Forget Series honoring author Arnost Lustig.



Fear Is Not An Option

Fear Is Not An Option

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Diane von Furstenberg says that the greatest gift she’s ever been given was the lesson that fear is not an option.

With 2015 off to a fearful start in Paris and its impact reverberating globally, especially within Jewish communities, it’s a lesson worth exploring.

I sat down with von Furstenberg, Queen of the Wrap Dress and the DVF brand, and found a down-to-earth woman with a powerful story that resonates far beyond the world of fashion.

As a small child, von Furstenberg learned her lesson in a rather brutal way from her mother, a Holocaust survivor.

“She’d lock me in a closet and wait til I stopped being afraid,” says von Furstenberg.

Her mother experienced atrocities at Auschwitz and her challenging life shaped von Furstenberg’s to this day.

“Fear is not an option is everything: fear of flying, living, confronting the truth…fear of anything,” says von Furstenberg, who has made some courageous choices in her personal and business life, as chronicled in her new book “The Woman I Wanted To Be.”

She recounts the many periods of self doubt and challenges she faced as her career soared then flopped, rose again from the ashes, battled to stay relevant and then triumphed in China and globally, ensuring DVF a place in the design history books. She’s done it all: married (and divorced) a prince, been painted by Andy Warhol, made front page of Newsweek, survived cancer, faced bankruptcy and become a doting grandmother.

In a conversation with Maria Shriver the day before our interview, she urged women to be hard on themselves. I asked her what she meant by that. Although some journalists claim she’s impossible to interview, DVF answered my question directly.

“The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself,” says von Furstenberg. “See yourself for what you really are…for the good and the bad, whatever. Once you have accepted that, then you can also begin to like yourself.”

Along with Tina Brown and Sally Field, von Furstenberg is part of Vital Voices, a network that supports female community and business leaders around the world, both politically and financially.


The interview took place at The Foreign Cinema in San Francisco on November 20, 2014. Many thanks to Julian Guthrie and Martin Muller for the invitation.

Check out our archives of Fresh Dialogues interviews with inspiring women like Meryl Streep, Maureen Dowd and Belva Davis.