Robotics Star Guy Hoffman Talks To NoCamels About Robots With ‘Soul’, ‘Poor’ Career Choices And His TED Talk That Went Viral
In October 2013, Dr. Guy Hoffman, a quirky roboticist with bleach-blonde hair and colored tattoos, gave a 17 minute-long TED talk in the city of Jaffa, Israel, on the world’s need for robots with “personality”. Little did he know that only a couple of moths later, 2.3 million people would watch his talk online, propelling him onto the international stage.
On that day, Hoffman’s talk, entitled “Robots with Soul”, was one of the three most watched videos on YouTube and became one of the thirty most viewed TED talks on YouTube ever.
Hoffman’s robots are blurring the line between the humane and the robotic, often making people smile, laugh or even cry. Travis, for example, is an adorable little robot that “dances” to the beat of music and Kip is an endearing lamp that acts “frightened” when people in its surrounding are yelling. Those describing Hoffman’s robots often bring up adjectives you wouldn’t typically associate with machines: “curious”, “cute”, “adorable”, “endearing”.
But what was so fascinating about Hoffman’s talk was not only the discussion on the controversial nature of how humans “relate with” robots, but also the unusual path taken by the German-Israeli on his way to becoming a respected robotics researcher. A universal theme in an age where people are struggling to commit to only one professional pathway, Hoffman showed that his dip in animation, music and even acting all helped him become a better creator of friendly robots.
“I am a robotics researcher with a very uneven path of getting there,” Hoffman tells NoCamels. “I tried out a lot of different things and was very undecided throughout my career. I had the chance of tasting many different things.”
A 21st century renaissance man
Unlike most TED speakers who tend to only recount their successes, Hoffman, who currently lectures at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, talked about what he at the time thought were “bad career choices”, including leaving a promising job to study animation and later taking a semester-long break during his PhD (which he eventually completed at MIT) to study acting. Even in college, Hoffman could never focus on one topic only, so ended up studying cinema, mathematics, computer science, philosophy and psychology.
“I went into a lot of wild directions and in the end something all right came out of it,” he says. “I think people today, especially young people, are very confused about their lives. And about what they should do. Maybe it was reassuring for them to see that you can be lost for a while and still get somewhere.”
Hoffman, who was also a course commander in the Israeli Defense Forces, adds: “For a while I was working in a very safe, convenient and comfortable job, yet something was missing. It happened a few times in my life that I felt ‘this can’t be everything, there has to be something more.’ And I preferred to look for it. Maybe to discover that it leads to nothing, but at least I would not always have to wonder if there is more.”
But Hoffman admits that lack of a conventional direction can sometimes be a problem. “In the academic world, this can sometimes be tricky, for example when you apply for research funds, but what you are doing does not seem to fit any category.”
Ultimately, says Hoffman, the worst career choice is “to work in something you don’t like, to prefer comfort and safety over significance.”
Failures that lead to success
Talking about his process to come up with new inventions, Hoffman, whose mother is noted Channel Two journalist Tatiana Hoffman, refers back to his time in film school: “I realized ‘the process’ just means failing many times, but to be alert enough to recognize when something nice is there.”
He adds: “In the beginning of the development of something new, there is a phase where it is all about putting ideas out and not being critical at all.”
“Then every project comes to a point were you say ‘this is it, we need to finish this.’ That’s the hardest part, because you will always see things that you think are not good or things you would like to add. Then it is really about staying focused and sticking to what you have decided.”
But sticking to a path is not always easy when fame comes knocking. Hoffman never expected his talk to go viral and has been variously elated and overwhelmed by the response. On any given day, the shy academic receives hundreds of emails, from invitations to speak at conferences around the world, to students asking for advice and even the occasional romantic proposition.
Hoffman says saying “no” is one of the most difficult things to learn to do in life, “but I can’t say yes to everything,” he says. He did recently accept to speak at the Seoul Digital Forum in South Korea, where he was introduced as a “visionary” and saw his speech broadcast on national television.
Asked whether his achievements have made him a little less anxious to succeed, Hoffman says: “I feel a little more relaxed right now,” and then adds with a smile, “only a little”.
Hoffman, together with his long-time friend Dr. Oren Zuckerman, is currently working on “empathic robots”, including the above-mentioned “Kip”, meant to help people communicate more positively with each other.