Why We Named Our Robot Steve

Cropped_Robot

We have a dog. She’s not a particularly bright or obedient dog. She is, however, our daughter’s most prized possession. (Am I allowed to call a dog a possession?) And she sheds. A lot. So much white hair floats around our home that my husband was ready to find a new home for this rescued pooch.

Instead, we got a Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner.

Within an hour of its arrival, the kids decided to name our new dog-hair-eating robot. They picked the name Steve. Why Steve? First, it’s funny. And the kids know that it’s funny. It’s funny because it’s a human name, not a robot name. Plus, we have fun saying things like, “Why is Steve trapped in the bathroom?” and “Tell Steve to go back home.”

The more interesting answer as to why we named it Steve is that when humans bring other beings into our family circle, we must give them names. As a people, we did this first with animals. In the early years of the industrial revolution, when robots entered our factories, we named them. In the beginning, the chosen names were not particularly kind. Over time though, the names became more complementary. Leaders in the Tesla factory have specifically noted that the names make the robots more acceptable to the (other) workers. You may know a car lovers who has named her car. Zipcar makes a habit of it, although their names are not usually human names.

In 2007, Kidd and Braezeal conducted a study showing that people enjoyed interacting with a robot that had only minimal human characteristics. [An entire field of study, including an annual conference, is dedicated to Human Robot Interaction.] Most participants in the study named their robots and referred to them using a gendered pronoun (he or she) in conversation.  I’ve personally seen this dynamic at work in a war zone. My friends who deployed to fix the EOD robots always named their robots. They even maintained a Wall of Honor for those robots who gave their motherboards for their country.

The EOD robots didn’t have humanoid characteristics though. Neither does Steve. They were decidedly non-human. Wheels for feet. Cameras for eyes. Radio for ears. Nothing that remotely looks like a face.

And yet, we name them. They become friends, they become family, and they work alongside us. We give them names because they are a part of our lives.

[As an aside, the above picture is my brother playing with our toy robot during the early 1970s. I don’t remember its name. Yet I do remember the robot had the most distinctive smell. The odd combination of smells can best be described as burnt rubber and gears that filled the room whenever we turned the robot on.]

Who’s behind you?

Going for a rideOn a recent bicycle ride to our local grocery store, my daughter and her friends and I formed a line. I took the rear — Tail End Charlie — following behind the youngest and therefore the slowest biker. The girl in the lead took off, enjoying the view, enjoying being in front, and she left the two of us in the dust. We caught up only when the others stopped before crossing a road.

For the return trip, I put the former leader behind the slowest girl, keeping Tail End Charlie for myself. Almost immediately, the girl in the lead took off, enjoying the view, enjoying being in front, leaving the three of us to shift for ourselves. Our former leader now hollered up, “Slow down! You’re going too fast!” She was watching the new leader behave exactly as she had. If she saw the irony, she didn’t show it. She felt the pain though of being left behind. The pain of being so far back that she didn’t even feel like part of the group any more.

When you’re in the lead, how often do you look back? Do you consider the slowest (perhaps the newest?) person on the team? Do you check their tires for proper inflation? Do you keep your team together?

Being a leader entails more than simply being in front. If you’re leading and no one is behind you, then you’re simply out for a ride.

Leaders consider everyone on their team. Leaders ensure that they have the tools to be successful, to keep up with the others. Leaders look out for those behind them.

And the first step to doing that is to pay attention.

Library

Why We Read Fiction

An instructor once told my class that A Confederacy of Dunces is among the best leadership books ever written. Huh? Really? I raised my hand. “I’ve read Confederacy and that’s nuts.”

Have you read this tome? If you’re from New Orleans, or ever been in a book club with someone from New Orleans, then you have. Otherwise, this obscure, Joycian ramble may have escaped your notice. A work of fiction, through and through, I couldn’t see why anyone would consider it to be about leadership. Leadership books are most often found in the Business section of the book store, and in the Dewey Decimal system under General Management.

Can leadership be learned from fiction?

The Marine Corps clearly thinks so. Orson Scott Card’s wonderful Ender’s Game has been on their reading list for years. The Navy seems less sure. None of their Essential books are fiction, although the Recommended list includes the classic Starship Troopers and Master and Commander. Retired Admiral Stavridis is famous as a voracious reader, and recently cited Generation of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov as one of his favorite books.

Stepping back, we should consider why we read fiction at all. We can read it to entertain us, to unwind, to engage, to delight. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, author Azar Nafisi proclaims that, “what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth”. Truth can be illuminated in fiction more clearly than truth can be found in reality. A non-fiction biography of Admiral Lord Nelson might tell us of his battles with Spain, his affair with Lady Hamilton, his final words and Hardy’s kiss.

Only in his fictional alter-ego of Horatio Hornblower do we learn about the fear experienced on the eve of action, the embarrassment caused by the lack of fortune, the calculated statements designed to endear the crew to their captain, the sick dread of watching a man before the mast taking his punishment at the cat o’nine tails.

We learn from Hornblower that our fears are not unique, that our doubts can be overcome, and that we too can learn to lead. Other fiction reveals other truths. Other shades of truth are illuminated by the fancy of the author and by our reactions to the characters.  Perhaps we learn more about the human condition by imagining how we might feel if we were in their situation and by filling in the gaps of their own musings.

What leadership lessons have you learned from fiction?

Using Code to Create Conduct

“On my honor, I will try….”

So begins the Girl Scout Law. The Girl Scout Promise is similar. “I will do my best to be….” And then a litany of virtues from honesty through courage to sisterhood. Every Scout meeting begins with the Law and the Promise. You likely did the same as a child if you were a Scout. You likely also stood in your morning homeroom class and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Other organizations use songs, creeds, vision statements.

Do these Codes of Conduct actually improve conduct? The research says they do, as long as we remember them. Dan Ariely discusses the concept in his excellent book, “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty”. His team conducted experiments which showed that a simple reminder about good conduct and moral behavior reduced the incidents of cheating. And this weekend, I had the opportunity to try it out.

My daughter’s Girl Scout Troop loves to camp, so there we were; out in the woods without much to do. [My fault, and the wisdom of giving 10-year-old Scouts too much time on their hands should be duly questioned.] Before long, the in-fighting began, with the various cabins pitted against each other.

We called each cabin out to the unit shelter and had them recite the Girl Scout Law and Promise. They weren’t in trouble. Each Scout was asked to simply evaluate her behavior in the context of who she is, as a Scout who does her best. And it worked! They figured it out. The warring ended and the cooperation began.

Are your cabins — departments — distracted by internal disputes? Are they more focused on each other than they are on the mission, the vision and the values of the organization?

Try reminding your team, early and often, of their greater purpose.

Remind them of why they are there. Not to earn money, or be seen as better than their co-workers. Remind them that they are there to serve the customer and each other.

Remind them of who they are.