TEDWomen Day 2 highlights: personal robots, breast cancer detection, and parenting taboos

I departed TEDWomen feeling very inspired, happy, and exhausted. The event was amazing, though I do think they could have done a better job of bringing more smart women who can talk about traditionally non-women issues — math, sports, science not related to breasts or pregnancy — to the stage. (Hearing Danielle Fisher talk about how she felt when she became the youngest woman to climb the Seven Summits, for example, would have been more fulfilling to me than listening to a parade of political figureheads talk about what it was like to be both a grandmother and a leader.) I hope TEDWomen will catalyze bringing more women to main TED, and that we'll be able to dig deeper beyond the rhetoric female empowerment and gender disparity to stories about women who do really cool shit and don't necessarily have to frame it as a woman thing.

Here are some highlights from day two (see also: Session 1 highlights & Session 2 highlights.):


Cynthia Breazeal, founder of the Personal Robots Lab at MIT, talked about how personalized robots can be used to improve communication, health, and media. She's been fascinated with personal sidekick robots since watching Star Wars as a child and has expanded her research based on the idea that robots = social technology. "People respond to robots a lot like how they respond to people," she says — by how likable, engaging, and trustworthy they are.

Communication: Breazeal's parents hardly ever get to see their grandkids because they live thousands of miles away; what if grandma could appear in the kids' room as Grandma Bot and interact with the kids by playing with real world toys or reading books by the bedside?

Health: In an experiment conducted with a diet program in the Boston area, participants who had a robot displaying diet information on-screen had a much more interactive and trusting experience than those who had a computer screen displaying the same information. People named the robot, dressed it up, even said good bye to it when it returned to MIT at the end of the study. People did not say good bye to their computers.

Media: Breazeal is experimenting with new ways of coming up with children's media that fosters creativity and innovation. She showed a video of her kids playing with a little cubic robot that comes out of a giant screen and plays with them. Quote:

Robots touch something deeply human within us. Whether they make us feel more inovative and creative, more connected thru distance... or tells us more about ourselves, to me, robots are all about people.


Deborah Rhodes talked about the importance of individualizing breast cancer screening based on breast density. Dense breast tissue and tumors both appear white in a mammogram — it's not an effective detection method for some women. Rhodes is currently perfecting a new technology called molecular breast imaging (MBI) that offers a much more accurate tumor detection system for women with denser breasts.

MBI uses a gamma detector made of thin layer of semiconductor material to produce much clearer images that do not show breast density in white. The first prototype was made by putting together a grid of these gamma plates and attaching them to an old mammography machine with duct tape.

A mammogram relies on appearance of tissue, but MBI evaluates the molecular behavior of tumors and is impervious to density. Patients receive an injection of radio tracer; then the breast is placed between detectors and uses light, pain-free compression (if you've ever had a mammogram, you know that this step normally hurts like hell) to transmit the image to the computer. In 2004, Rhodes got a grant from the Susan G. Komen foundation to study a thousand women with dense breasts — digital mammography only found 25% of tumors, while MBI found 83%. The MBI has a radiation dose equivalent to radiation of one digital mammogram, about 1/5 the amount of most gamma technologies.

MBI is as accurate as MRI, far less complex to interpret, and a fraction of the cost. Rhodes also talked a little about the politics of breast cancer research — she had trouble getting it published because some journal owners had vested interest in other competing technologies. The manuscript will be published later this month in the journal Radiology.

Babble.com founders Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman — who are married to each other and have three boys — gave a funny talk about how speaking about parenting honestly and managing expectations can "bend the happiness baseline" while raising a family together. They presented their ideas as a list of four parenting taboos:

1. You can't say you didn't fall in love with your baby in the first minute: Griscom told a funny story about the overwhelm and intense emotions he felt the moment his first baby popped out — as exciting as it was, what he felt for the baby was more "very strong affection" than "the most love it's possible to feel." Volkman joked that, for the first few months after each of their children's births, Griscom is Uncle Rufus (i.e. not Dad).

2. You can't talk about how lonely having a baby can be: Right after the birth, Volkman said, "I felt like I was a vessel for the future of humanity." But when she got home, she felt disconnected/shut out/shut in. When she asked her sister why she hadn't warned her about this loneliness, the sister said: it's just not something you want to be telling a new mother. Volkman says we should talk about the difficult aspects of new motherhood with brutal honesty and candor. Less than 50% of Americans live near family members; in other cultures, expecting mothers move back in with their own mothers for the months immediately before and after childbirth.

3. You can't talk about your miscarriage: 15-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, yet there's no community around this "invisible loss." Volkman talked about her own miscarriage and showed the last ultrasound photo of what would have been her second soon. "I felt shame that I failed at something I'm genetically engineered to do."

4. You can't say that your average happiness has declined: Raising a child through the terrible twos and teenage angst is tough. And while it's full of more ups and downs that you might ever have in your lifetime, it's quite likely that your average happiness will decline compared to when you were young and single or after the kids leave the nest and you're free to do whatever you want.


*Heather Knight brought a robot on-stage to tell live jokes.
*National Geographic filmmakers Beverly and Derek Joubert showed amazing footage of lionesses attacking elephants and leopards nurturing baby baboons in Africa.
*Donna Karan talked about how how the death of her father, her boss Anne Klein, her mother, and her life partner were all also pivotal moments of birth in her career.
*Kiran Bedi, India's first female police officer and prison commissioner, gave the first and only parking ticket to an Indian prime minister and later introduced prayer and meditation to 1,000 prisoners.
*The Skoll Foundation's Sally Osberg stopped reading Cinderella stories at age 10 and instead read biographies about the early social entrepreneurs of America, like Florence Nightingale and Eleanor Roosevelt. "They were problem solvers who understood that ministering to the suffering and the inflicted was nice, but insufficient."
*20-year old Sejal Hathi talked about the power of community for girls — to date, her organization Girls Helping Girls has trained and mobilized over 30,000 young women who are creating microenterprises and sustainable initiatives in their communities.



  1. I was listening to a TED talk once and they had a female scientist on, a biologist, I think. When it came time to ask questions a rather shrill woman stood up in the audience and delivered a lecture on feminism that seemed to go on for about five minutes before she concluded with what amounted to, “do you agree?”

    The scientist said she would much rather talk about science, because it’s why she became a scientist and why she came to talk.

    I’m all for feminism but when it’s at its best, it’s invisible. TEDWomen may be about empowering women. It’s also about isolating them.

  2. I agree. I’m an active feminist and speak on, ponder, philosophize and deal with the issues of life…as a woman.. often. But I also live as a human… a sort of still young careerist navigating a bad economy, questions of retirement, job hopping, success and family. I think all issues of life are women’s issues, success is success. Sometimes it comes at you differently as a woman, but I think constantly using the parenthetical “I’m a woman AND a leader” “I did all this AND I am a woman” can be debilitating. I don’t need the asterisk. Let’s just talk about leadership and what we do.

  3. I am sorry, didn’t they used to video tape thsi suff. why do I need to read the court stenographer’s version?

    1. If I understand correctly, you can buy the whole conference log now for $100, or wait until they release the individual talks gradually through the main TED site.

  4. Why would women doing cool shit unrelated to women-specific issues not go directly to the main TED conference?

  5. i found myself wondering about how people would react to a screen with a animated face on it, in relation to the stuff about robots being named…

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