The Paro seal robot stares at its users with big, childlike eyes. Its white fur invites people to pet it. Like a real seal, it can cry and wave its flippers. It can even respond to its own name. Developed in Japan, it has been used to support patients in hospitals and nursing homes, providing company and social stimulation.
Paro is one of many examples of social robots to have emerged in the last few years. These robots are designed to interact with humans, allowing an emotional bond to be built with users. It might not sound far-fetched to feel some sort of connection to a chatbot that asks us questions about our wellbeing – therapist chatbots have become popular for a reason, after all. But a robot that supposedly looks like a person or an animal, and can engage with me on both a cognitive and an emotional level? Well, that raises all sorts of other complications.
The task of developing social and emotionally capable robots clearly requires an interdisciplinary approach. My Human+ project EVOLVE_AI aims to make social robotics a field in which even more perspectives, fields and stakeholders can be brought together to address this challenge. In critical and feminist theory[CC1] , there exists a long-standing concern with emotions as the glue of societies. This means that emotions matter not just in terms of how individuals relate to robots. Our emotional states – how we experience, express and articulate our feelings, and therefore relate to others – also reflect existing power dynamics.’
The development of supposedly social, emotional robots operating on different scales and in varying shapes – in households, hospitals, and care homes – will have a huge impact on societies and the socio-cultural practice of emotions. Debates about these trends cannot be reduced to the question of how to refine robot technology or endow robots with ‘emotions’, or indeed what kind of socio-political guidelines might be needed in engaging with emerging robots.
“The Human+ fellowship programme at Trinity College Dublin has given me the space to explore these questions through both theoretical and practical engagements.”
My EVOLVE_AI project takes a different slant in involving collaborative research across robotics and SSHA (social sciences, humanities, and the arts). Rather than think of emotions as an add-on to technology, I ask how we might build them into technological development from the outset. What kind of emotions could emerge from human-robot-interaction, for example, if social machines were designed to improve the socio-cultural practice of feeling, expressing, and articulating emotions? And how might these emotions be expressed?
The Human+ fellowship programme at Trinity College Dublin has given me the space to explore these questions through both theoretical and practical engagements. Under the supervision of digital humanist Jennifer Edmond (based in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies) and roboticist Conor McGinn (professor of mechanical, manufacturing and biomechanical engineering), my project combines practical aspects of engineering with critical theory on the role, meaning and concept of emotions. I started the fellowship in January 2022 and it has been a unique opportunity to work in both a robotics lab and an SSHA environment, collaborating with supervisors from different academic disciplines. To be in a position to bridge knowledge cultures and work together in a hands-on way is something not always possible in academia, but here we have a space that explicitly encourages interdisciplinary approaches at every stage.
The massive transformative potential of social, and emotional robotics needs research environments like Human+ to facilitate creative, critical engagements that will take responsibility for sociotechnical change in new ways. For me, the programme has been exemplary in creating the conditions for research that tackles some of the most pressing questions of sociotechnical transformation. These are questions that require not just technical solutions, but humanist insights as well.
The Human+ Tech Talks is a new series in which the Human+ fellows will be joined by their academic mentors and enterprise partners to tackle a number of the biggest questions being asked about the future of technology. Register here for Pat’s Human+ Tech Talk.