Talk on robots as ‘companion species’ at Carnegie Mellon, Jan 14th

So my next upcoming talk is at Carnegie Mellon University, at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, on January 14th, 4-5.30pm. Link on the CMU website is here. Here is the title and abstract:

Robots as ‘companion species’? Designing for disability and the mixed spaces of human-robot interactions

There is a burgeoning ecology of robots as “machines to live with” (Brooks 2002; Thrift 2004) which is ripe for social scientific research, but also can directly inform better practices for interaction design. As a result of assisted living initiatives that increase the quality of life for senior citizens, for rehabilitation, or for dispensing purposes, human-robot interactions especially with personal service robots are increasingly creeping from institutional settings into the home. Meanwhile, Donna Haraway’s idea of ‘companion species’ (A Companion Species Manifesto, 2003, Where Species Meet 2008) has been a productive concept in social science for understanding the shifting socio-historical relationship between the human and non-human. We privilege certain animals like dogs, cats and horses, foster certain interactions based on verbal and nonverbal cues and, over time, shape the range and types of behaviors through encouraging words, gentle nudges or strong smacks. They are ‘companion’ species because of an increasing physical and affective attunement that permits certain tasks to be accomplished, without diminishing any emotional connection between human and nonhuman, or what she terms the nonhuman’s ‘significant otherness’.

Kirobo 2.0 Robot Companion
Kirobo 2.0 Robot Companion

In this presentation I argue that real-world interactions in the shared human-robotic spaces of assisted living, rehabilitation, sensory and physical impairments, and even industrial processing settings, will increasingly have to build in the ‘significance’ of their ‘significant otherness’, to build companion-like relationships rather than human robot interfaces. Studies of assistive social robots like Paro the seal (e.g. Turkle 2006), personalized interactions with service robots (e.g. Lee, Forlizzi et al. 2010) or the designed assisted living environments of Kirsten Dautenhahn (University of Buckingham), show that the mixed spaces of human-robot interactions are increasingly of interest for enhancing the quality of life for seniors or those with disabilities. Based on work undertaken with OC Robotics’ snake-arm robots and RoboSapien in the UK, my research on haptic interfaces, on technologies of sensory substitution for the vision impaired, and on ethnographic and videographic research methods that interrogate bodily sensations in fieldwork, I explore some possibilities for undertaking longtitudinal ethnographic research on robots as ‘companion species’ both in the design lab and in the home.


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