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From sense-making to sense-giving: the role of design for the social acceptance of robots

As we move from industrial and research-based use of robotic technology, to a broader adoption of robots in daily life (e.g. cleaning assistants, personal assistants, social assistants or even pets/companions) as well as in community-led contexts (robotics for people science), the question around social acceptance of robots starts dominating debates about the future of robotics.

Social acceptance deals with people’s readiness levels for adopting /using this kind of technology for purposes beyond pure research such as personal assistance in healthcare, domestic support (cleaning/entertainment) or technical assistance. Emerging studies that look at the perception of different categories of robots such as humanoid robots, cleaning robots or industrial robots, show that adoption readiness levels vary across cultures, as they reflect the sense of values and preferences of each culture/nation. Social acceptance is becoming increasingly interesting also in the context of thinking how it could guide robot design and human-robot interaction possibilities, as it carves out new spaces for imagining the future of robotics. This reads as a timely moment to start thinking further and deeper about our interaction with robots and the path that we want to follow as designers, users or simply as audiences of this fascinating and highly complex form of technology.

By touching upon this topic, this first blog entry aims to open up broader debates on the complex social and societal challenges surrounding the field of robotics, the gender gap being among one of the most pressing ones. The article points out how notions of ethics, aesthetics, design and technology are intrinsically linked to gender aspects. In doing so, it reflects upon how, in the current situation of the pandemic, robots can help us see the world differently, in order to shift towards a deeper and more reflective understanding of our place in the world.

  1. Robot sense-making: how do we care?

Robots come in different forms, shapes and sizes, which makes them particularly suitable for a specific area of intervention (social services, armed forces, marine etc). Yet, our acceptance of this kind of technology for various applications, goes well beyond their functionality. The way we ‘make sense’ of robots is thus much more complex than meets the eye.

Sensemaking is a core concept explaining the way we give meaning to our experience of the world. As a framework cutting across disciplines, the concept of sensemaking has given rise to numerous theories among others in management, visual studies and design. For design, the role of the designer is fundamentally that of making explicit what lies in the implicit process of sensemaking, in the attempt to produce meaning of the data through interpretation/modeling. Yet, how do in the end social values and norms get embedded into the design process and is there any particular form of design paying specific attention to this? While moral values and norms cannot be completely absent from design, there is a particular approach to design that pays increased attention to moral values. This is the case of value-sensitive design.

Value-sensitive design makes social and moral values central to the design/development of new technology. How do we incorporate expressions of shared values in the things we make? What is the moral significance of thinking about the values embedded in our design? With the introduction of AI and other automation possibilities that have suddenly opened up new avenues for human-robot interaction, the role of design shifts again, rendering the aesthetics/ethics nexus even more complex than before. In these circumstances, how does a culture of ‘care’ ensure that the way we think about and design robots avoids being instrumentalized in the name of progress and continues to adhere to the purpose of ‘doing more good than before’?


2. Robotics: the move towards reality or emotion?

As the first lockdown passed over us and current social distancing measures continue to render physical interaction difficult, we are urged to reconsider the importance of human contact and dialogue. It has become clear that robots are still very much needed in this crisis situation, especially in the context of social care, where for safety reasons, human contact is not possible. At the same time, we have learned that human contact is indispensable and cannot completely be substituted by our interaction with robots.

While robots offer us a sense of reality by being tangible and real, they cannot seem to offer us empathy, nor the ‘warmth’ that another human being is capable of showing. Latest developments in AI and machine learning have made great progress in the way we can interact with robots. At the same time, it has changed robot design too. On the one hand we have humanoid robots whose resemblance to humans is striking; on the other hand we have more functional robots that are deployed as ‘technical’ assistants rather than occupying a social role. Although both forms of robots share the tangible nature of technology towards which we strive in an attempt to move from a virtual context of technology, to one that is real and present, their aesthetics is something that clearly sets them apart. The two examples in the table below show just how much aesthetics can differ in robotic technology applied to different areas of intervention.

The example on the left-hand side, the educational robot is a humanoid robot used for educational purposes. The example on the right-hand side is the SWAMP robot, a Shallow Water Autonomous Multipurpose Platform (ASV) developed by the Institute of Marine Engineering of the National Research Council in Italy for the monitoring of coastal areas.

So what means social acceptance of robots in such different contexts? One potential point from which to depart would be that of a return to a ‘culture of care’, to a more ‘natural’ state of sensemaking, where we pay more attention to our senses and how these guide our interaction with technology. In doing so we shift from a sense of reality conveyed by technology, to one dominated by emotion and empathy. Through this shift, nature can become a major point of inspiration but also a field to look towards when shaping the future of robotics.


3. The return to nature

Nature has long been a source of inspiration for human kind. We have always reached out to nature to understand and deepen our perception of the world and ourselves. Robotics makes no exception, as evidenced by recent developments in the field of biorobotics, a relatively new area of bio-inspired design that gets inspiration from biological systems in order to develop new robotic technologies. The Octo-Bot below (BioRobotics Institute/Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna) is an example of a model in soft robotics, which builds on the concept of bio-inspired design. The octopus-shaped robot can operate on difficult terrain and perform tasks that a conventional robot would have difficulties undertaking.

Soft robotics and the hybrid experiments pushing research forward in this field (e.g. bio-hybrid soft robotics combining the qualities of soft and rigid materials) shows a clear ‘turn’ to nature, where new robotic solutions are sought that can ‘see’ the world and intelligently interact with it. In doing so, aesthetics is not only functional but also relational; it shapes our world and the way we interact with it. In marine robotics specifically, experiments with embodied sensing processes are turning robots from mere ‘tools’ to cooperative companions with embodied sensing capabilities. This has immense implications on both the way in which we look at our seas and oceans, as well as on how we interact with it.


4. Affective design as a way to move forward in marine robotics?

The sections above approached the theme of social acceptance of robots through the prism of design and the way in which aesthetics and ethics have become intimately woven. The examples under scrutiny showed how current research in robotics takes a distance from the vision of emotional robotics as a way to fill in a gap in society (compensate for a deficit of intimacy) and moves towards a relational approach in robotics that can open up new ways of understanding the world.

Inside this ‘affective turn’, bio-inspired design becomes a poignant example of how new sensing technologies affect the way we research and interact with the environment. New flexible materials deployed for example in the design of marine robots are completely changing the aesthetics of robots and in doing so, re-think both our control of and interaction possibilities with marine technology. Robot snakes, octopuses and other similar blue technologies do not simply enable us to perform difficult tasks more efficiently. Above all they introduce new ways of ‘moving’ under the sea that require specific control and communication abilities and knowledge. In doing so, they expand our embodied capacity and call upon the adaptation of our human sensorium to new interaction possibilities.

In this context, more and more women researchers are positioned at the forefront of innovation. While their presence is still very low specifically in marine robotics, they represent success stories of female innovation. At ‘Women in Blue’ we conduct holistic research on the gender gap in marine robotics through initiatives such as interviews, quantitative studies and visual research (archive). One of our first tasks now is to map how many women work in marine robotics. If you would like to dedicate few minutes of your time to help us with the study please do it here:

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