Interview by Jenny Bristol
Illustration by Rebecca Burgess
Anthony Harrison lives in the Washington, D.C., area and spends his days taking care of his cats, pursuing his varied interests, and, in his day job, progressing the field of human-robot interaction. Anthony works as a research psychologist at the US Naval Research Laboratory in the Intelligent Systems section, where he delves deep into artificial intelligence. He earned his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in 2007, where he specialized in the simulation of human cognition.
Anthony regularly infuses his life with new interests and hobbies, taking advantage of breaks in his schedule to dig deep and learn All the Things about a new area that interests him. And, though he admits that humans are more complicated than robots, he also makes time for a social life. His personal experiences with being perceived as different from others helped guide his career choices, and he is grateful to his parents for giving him the space to be himself.
What does a typical work/regular day look like for you?
Well, my cats keep me on a fairly tight schedule. Up early to feed the beasts and myself and then I start working from home while I wait out DC’s notorious traffic. These two to three hours are generally my most productive as I knock out low hanging fruit (i.e., programming) without any human interruptions. After the traffic has broken, I’ll head in, sometimes on bicycle to get my exercise.
I work at the US Naval Research Laboratory as a research psychologist studying human-robot interaction.
“More specifically, I take psychological theories of how people reason and problem solve and create AIs that mimic the behaviors observed during experimentation.”
We then take these AI and put them on robots. The robot can use them to guide their own behavior and to better anticipate human needs.
Mornings are for theory work, programming, and writing papers. Afternoons are for meetings and lab time with the robots. A few hours of working with robots is enough frustration for anyone. After work, it’s back home to feed the beasts and myself—then either relaxing at home or some hobby time. Maybe if I’m feeling fully charged, and not subject to COVID shutdown, something social.
What hobbies or interests do you have outside of your work?
I’m a collector of hobbies and interests. You know the deal: deep, obsessive interest in some random area. In my life something always comes up and the routine is broken. I often use that time to find something new to try. Most interestingly rock climbing and trapeze, before that glass-blowing and knots. I’m thinking of returning to SCUBA diving when COVID is finally mitigated. But currently my hobby is consuming COVID information and trying to maintain some semblance of a dating life.
How does being autistic help or hinder your work or hobbies?
When doesn’t a laser-like focus of attention help? Seriously, when there is a theoretical or programming challenge, I’m all in. I can focus for hours on hours until the problem is solved. That’s the good side. The bad side is that I often get stuck obsessively searching for a solution. Fortunately, I have coworkers that can help me avoid those traps.
What kinds of changes or accommodations do you make in your life to allow you to be successful?
It’s ironic, being a psychologist, but I avoid people as much as I can. They’re just so messy in reality—nothing at all like the nice, clean theories I play with. Fortunately, I work in a relatively small lab, my coworkers are very accepting, and my boss has been accommodating. If I have to interface with people (give a talk, briefing, tour), I always get plenty of notice so I can adequately prepare and not feel any unnecessary pressure.
Have you experienced discrimination or bullying because of your autism or autistic traits?
It was seventh grade. I was standing at my locker when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and was immediately decked—dropped like a sack of bricks. I looked at my attacker, having no idea who he was. It was some of random violence social pressure thing. He high-fived his buddies and disappeared down the hall. I would later learn that I was attacked because I was a “nerd”. I couldn’t make sense of it. The randomness of it.
“What made me a “nerd” worthy of singling out and attacking? So began my interest in human psychology and motivation.”
I quickly learned that it was my nonverbal signals that helped set me apart: hunched shoulders, eyes downcast, more books than friends. I altered those behaviors I could, and so began my life of masking, guided by the study of psychology all in service of self-defense.
What advice would you give to a young or teenage autistic person to help them live their best life?
The only path to happiness is through other humans. It sucks, they’re messy, complicated, and likely to hurt you, but they are ultimately worth it. No matter how much you fail, there is still a chance to find that one person who actively wants to understand and accept you for who you are. That’s the theory at least.
What advice would you give parents of autistic kids about the best ways to support their kids in becoming their best selves? What advice from the “experts” do you think parents should ignore?
That one is tough. Asperger’s wasn’t even a diagnosis until after I graduated high school. I wasn’t diagnosed until my later 30s. Neither my parents nor I suspected I was anything other than just odd—gifted, but odd. They gave me enough space to be myself, which I am eternally thankful for. They also pressured me into social activities like Boy Scouts and the like. I was less thankful at the time, but now I appreciate it. I guess my best advice is to adapt to your child—they’ve all got different needs and different ways to scaffold.
What was one piece of advice you received that helped you be comfortable with who you are?
It wasn’t any piece of advice. It was a person, a past partner through whom I was able to see myself. She loved and understood me like no other and helped me realize that I can connect emotionally with others. Granted, she ultimately crushed and left me, but the lesson was learned.
What made you decide to work in robotics?
Robotics was just the natural landing place. I already mentioned how I developed a taste for psychology, but computers were always my first love. Programming has always come naturally. I worked to merge the two by focusing on AI. What good is a human-like AI if you don’t give it a body to interact with? Robotics can be a kind of existence proof for psychological theories.
What is one thing (or several things) about working with robots that people might not expect? Or, what misconceptions about working with robots would you like to dispel?
It’s not all Terminators and Skynet. The robot apocalypse isn’t coming anytime soon. The smartest robot is still nothing more than a tantrum-throwing toddler. Robots are more like classic cars: really expensive and you spend more time keeping them running than running themselves.
What are the best ways for people to connect with you?
Facebook: Anthony Harrison
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