Picture of Maryam Ashoori

Maryam Ashoori,

‘Cool Things Czar,’ IBM Research
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It’s hard to say how many people have built a TJBot—probably tens of thousands in the open source community. And this little robot is taking the world by storm: makers are sharing their versions of him on social media in India, China, Kenya, Pakistan, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Chile, Brazil, Ireland and Senegal, to name a few countries.

TJBot can be made of cardboard or he can be 3D printed. His brain is a Raspberry Pi, a small Linux computer that uses Watson services to bring him to life. He can be programmed to see, hear, speak, glow with lights that respond to sentiments, understand emotions and translate languages.

I’m part computer scientist, part user experience analyst, and part interface artist.

Meet TJBot’s maker

Maryam Ashoori has a PhD in Systems Design Engineering. A research staff member and manager at IBM Research, Ashoori is also known as IBM’s Cool Things Czar. “I wanted to explore the potential of TJBot to help introduce students and open-source makers to IBM Watson,” she says. “I’m part computer scientist, part user experience analyst, and part interface artist, and I love exploring the intersection of these fields.”

An example of this is in her design exploration of the physical environments in which strategic decision-making sessions take place. In her room designs, people interact with each other and with intelligent agents — the latter of which are designed to affect interactions to improve the quality of the decisions made in the room. Ashoori recognized that the quality of decisions made is highly affected by mood, so she experimented with a virtual “Zen garden” to relieve stress by adjusting ambient lighting and playing meditative videos. She also developed an “inspiration” mode designed to spark creativity.

Makers and students are introduced to Watson

Ashoori’s explorations with “embodied cognition,” the idea of embedding artificial intelligence like speech and natural language understanding into objects in our everyday lives, led to a project that would help people better understand how to use Watson. “My team wanted to create a fun way for people to build things with Watson,” she says. “We did a lot of brainstorming and prototyping, creating things like a cognitive chair that measures posture, and a cognitive lamp that responds to your voice.

“But the concept that we really fell in love with was a paper robot we called TJBot — affectionately named after Thomas J. Watson, the first Chairman and CEO of IBM. While in this case we’re putting Watson technologies into a cardboard cutout, imagine these types of capabilities in your walls, in your furniture, or in objects in your home.”

TJBot made his public debut in November 2016 at the Watson Developer Conference, targeting two communities: makers and students. “Makers,” explains Ashoori, “because they like building and tinkering with things, and students because we believe it has tremendous potential for teaching kids programming with Watson.”

I wanted to introduce students and open-source makers to IBM Watson

Picture of Maryam Ashoori

The next step: Quantum

The next step: Quantum

“TJBot was a pilot experiment to understand how a DIY kit could teach people how to program using Watson’s cognitive services,” Ashoori says. “We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in order to improve the next design.”

Taking that iterative process and her passion for creating objects that empower and motivate people to learn about programming and making things with technology, Ashoori is looking beyond the realms of conventional computing for her next area of focus.

“My next project will focus on quantum computing,” she says. “We are currently thinking of creative ways to teach people about quantum computing and how to program quantum computers.”