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Selma Sabanovic, PhD: Socializing Robots – Collaborative approaches to robot design


A current theme in robotics is the development of “co-robots” – technologies meant to work with and alongside people, co-inhabit our everyday environments, and have a “symbiotic” relationship with humans. The co-robot vision contrasts with the prior focus in robotics on developing autonomous machines that could replace human labor, and environments that would allow robots to operate in relative isolation from humans, exemplified by the “lights-out” factory. In so doing, it extends the emerging view that robots can be “social” machines, aware of and able to act according to social cues and norms that humans construct and inhabit.

This perspective in robotics brings up not only new technical challenges, but also requires deeper discussion of what it means for robots to “be social,” as part of everyday human activities and long-term interactions, and how such enduring social interactions can be designed. The notion of sociality in the social sciences implies a relational scope, in which social interaction partners engage in a process of mutual constitution that is dynamic and contextually situated. In robot design, therefore, we need to go beyond specific robot characteristics and capabilities (e.g. appearance, recognition and performance of social cues) to consider how robots can be part of interpersonal, organizational, and political relations. The design and research paradigm of robotics, however, has yet to find robust ways to incorporate this relational vision.

I will examine how to study and design robots from a relational perspective on “the social” through a series of studies. First, I will show the importance of human labor in the use of a socially assistive robot in a local eldercare institution, and how the robot’s intepretively flexible design enabled contextual negotiation of its use and meaning. Then, I will discuss how people’s experiences with domestic technologies are shaped by social and political dynamics within and beyond the home, and how the sense people make of their experiences can differ from the researchers’ design logic. Finally, I will discuss insights from a participatory design project aiming to develop new socially assistive robot concepts with older adults and their therapists. The connecting threads between these examples is in the search for methods to study and design robots along with the broader social relations of their use.

About Selma Sabanovic

Selma Sabanovic is an Assistant Professor of Informatics and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, where I direct the R-House Lab. Her work combines the social studies of computing, focusing particularly on the design, use, and consequences of socially interactive and assistive robots in different social and cultural contexts, with research on human-robot interaction (HRI) and social robot design. Sabanovic spent Summer 2014 as a Visiting Professor at Bielefeld University’s Cluster of Excellence in Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC). Prior to coming to IUB, she was a lecturer in Stanford University’s Program in Science, Technology and Society in 2008/2009, and a visiting scholar at the Intelligent Systems Institute in AIST, Tsukuba, Japan and the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. She was awarded IU’s Outstanding Junior Faculty Award in 2013. Sabanovic received my PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2007.