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If we posit a not-so-distant future where robots are ubiquitous, it stands to reason that we need writers to ground portrayals of them in reality. We say good-bye to crazed androids from pulp magazines who inexplicably try to kidnap beautiful women, and we're equally skeptical of Hollywood depictions of an AI apocalypse that still prevail today.
And first impressions matter, which is why Professor Stefanie Tellex of Brown University's Department of Computer Science (Brown CS) has served as an advisor for a just-released children's picture book (My Friend Robot!) from Barefoot Books, written by Kate "Sunny Scribens" DePalma and illustrated by Hui Skipp. It's part of Barefoot's series of STEM titles for kids, and the public got an early glimpse of the book at July's Robotics: Science and Systems conference at MIT.
"My young son was a big motivation," Stefanie explains. "Having a kid has made me even more interested in robotics outreach to the general public, and teachers often ask me where to go for more information, what to do next."
Senior Editor at Barefoot Books, Kate explains that her husband, Dr. Nick DePalma, a scientist who specializes in human-robot interaction, recommended Stefanie as a partner. "I needed help," she says, "with making sure the text and artwork were reasonably scientifically accurate. Dr. Tellex reviewed both while they were in process to make sure they were 'accurate' despite depicting a somewhat fantastical humanoid robot."
"I'd been a fan of Barefoot Books forever," says Stefanie, "so I knew that I'd love to help. I did some brainstorming about what robots are used for: space exploration, healthcare, manufacturing, and then I wrote some text to describe them. I also sent along some references and visual examples for things like Voyager 1, a Roomba, and a surgical robot."
The collaboration, Kate remembers, quickly grew from there. "Dr. Tellex was instrumental in helping create the educational endmatter that closes the book and building the content for two of the spreads from scratch. Writing the endmatter was a huge challenge, because it needs to stay relevant and not be outdated in a few years. This book emphasizes the human element of robotics — how we can work with robots and have different careers in robotics. We want to get young children interested in STEM/STEAM/STREAM fields!"
"Just seeing the proofs, the beautiful art, was so cool," Stefanie enthuses, clearly inspired by the collaboration. "Imagine kids realizing that Voyager 1, the manmade object that's traveled farthest from Earth, is a robot! 60 years after it was launched, it's still working. Its story is still unfolding for us today, right now."
"Stefanie was a joy to work with and totally critical to the process of creating the book," says Kate. "She helped us bring a whole new dimension of information and accuracy to it. And we have her to thank for the fun, computerless programming activity we included! We were thrilled to credit her prominently on the copyright page so readers, caregivers, and educators know how much care and thought went into the development of the book."
It's clear that Stefanie feels the same way. "On top of publishing diverse and inclusive books, Barefoot is known for getting their facts straight, and that's important to me. It was great to interact with someone who knows kids, what they need and how they learn. It's exciting to me that there's this wide open space for us to educate the public. Parents really need things like this."
The images above are © 2017 by Barefoot Books and used with permission.
For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.