Lisa Winter sees herself as a superwoman: “At night she builds robots, plays violin, and has ambitions to save the world” this is how she describes herself in her blog. And actually, she is a superwoman; she started doing robotics at the age of 10, when she participated in her first Robot Combat she was the only girl. Now, Lisa is the Engineering Project Manager at Mattel. With more that 20 years designing and building robots. She has competed in all U.S. Robot Wars and BattleBots competitions since 1996, including ABC’s BattleBots. And recently was named on the “top 25 women in robotics you need to know about” by Robohub.
But the real superpower is that she started all of this in a time when few women studied engineering, she was the exception to the rule and managed to make herself a place in the robotics world.
Robot builder, Project Manager, Rapid Prototyper, Artist, Machinist, Musician, Robot Wars Champion Woman, entrepreneur. This is the awe-inspiring interview with Lisa Winter:
You started programming since childhood and you made several prototypes of robots. What was your motivation to develop this passion?
I started as a enthusiast in robotics at the age of 10. I remember that when I was a kid, I started to build stuff for my toys. Not just playing with them. I wanted to create things to improve them.
I was really lucky to have a family that never said “you can’t try that, because you are a girl”. My family was really open with me when I wanted to try new things, because we are a really artistic family. In the cold winter in Wisconsin I had a lot of time inside the house and we didn’t have a lot of money. I started to develop my curiosity and create things from scratch.
Having this kind of thought is really important because you also go into school not being told that you can’t and it influeces your carrer’s path.
When you walk into a children’s store. Normally, you can appreciate how toys are divided. Girls’ toys are always objects related to the home: a kitchen’s toy, baby dolls, princess costumes. In contrast, boy’s toys are more related to proper adult jobs: mechanic, driver, engineer. How do you think girls’s toys have to change in order to motivate them to study programming?
I do feel that some toys right now are going down a certain role. Every kid is different, I don’t think you should be told what you should be doing and what you should be interested in.
I do think toys nowadays are more understanding about the situation that you’ve explained, but a lot of them are also still a gender gap, and definitely we still have to work on that. And also with the color coding, for example. Why can’t boys wear pink?. From the beginning, Toys are making the gap.
What has Mattel been doing recently to encourage girls to approach fields like engineering and programming?
A commom misconception is that I’m working with toys everyday; I actually work with IoT hardware that you don’t see: baby products, baby monitors. We have worked a lot this year.
I have been inventing and rapid prototyping connected devices since the beginning of the IoT movement. Currently an Engineering Project Manager at Mattel, I’m developing a smart wearable baby monitor.
I’m very familiar with the Mattel product line and with the Barbie line, and recently there was a new Barbie line that came out with differents shapes, sizes and height. There are also a lot of Barbies with different professions: scientist, engineer, policewoman, etc.
I think that it is a good start to change the gap we were talking about.
To face the discrimination of women in the tech world. What kind of things have to change?
My experience is more IoT or robotics. I was one of the only girl in Robot Combat when I was 10 years old. Nowdays there are definitely a lot more. I think that there are more programs to encourage women now and this is the first step, because it is about gaining popularity and make more visibility for women (for inclusion).
Today, there are a lot of women as CEOs, CTOs and founders, and all of them are good example.
The last two years have seen a female boom in this industry and I think it is going to grow. Those role models are important for the girls.
In one #AkuaroQuiz the question was: Why aren’t there more female developers? The second most voted answered was “Because coding is difficult”. What do you want to say to all those people who have this thought?
I don’t like it at all. I think that we are all mentally capable of doing whatever we want. Sometimes people say that about physical sports (that woman and man have different skills) because people says that we have developed different muscles but in term of mental capacity we can all do everything.
Coding is definitely not too hard. Nowadays, a five years old kid can start coding. It’s not about archetypes. I think that all of that is culture and educational system and just not having a good mentor or people outside to be inspired by. We can see this idea in commercials, TV and movies where you see male programmers sitting in a room. Little girls are watching that before choosing a career and it is not going to look like an option for them.
At the Cube Tech Fair you participated in a common topic about the ethic in the robotic and you said: “A robot with AI can be programmed to attack a bank … A robot with general intelligence will at some point decide to attack a bank.”
To do that, robots have to generate conscience and it is something a lot of people are talking about. How possible can it be to create conscience in a robot?
AI is a developer’s presence in a computer pushing in through a keyboard: if the robot runs into a wall on a right side they make it left turn. Artificial General Intelligencia AGI is when a robot, not programmed by humans, is almost like a human baby where the robot will learn for itself about the world, how to interact with the world and also make its own decisions; and in this case having a more solid consciencie and its own decision making.
I haven’t seen any examples, but probably we will have a robot like this any time soon and I am not afraid of this. This is the future.