Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Everyday Intimate Machines: Human Interaction with Sociable Robots

Below is my submission for this year's SSHRC competition:

Everyday Intimate Machines: Human Interaction with Sociable Robots

The quest to create ever more sophisticated robots is intensifying globally. Increasingly lively, autonomous, interactive, and anthropomorphic robots are making their way from industrial and commercial contexts into everyday human social life (Menzel and D’Aluisio, 2000). Automated teller machines (ATMs) have given way to domestic service robots (e.g. iRobots: the Roomba Discovery Vacuum), robotic dolls (e.g. Ugobe’s: Pleo; Sony’s: AIBO), therapeutic pets (e.g. Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology’s: Paro, the robotic seal), companion-bots (e.g. Sega’s: EMA, Eternal, Maiden, Actualization robot), and highly advanced sociable-robots designed to engage in socially situated learning (e.g. MIT’s: Nexi, a Mobile, Social, and Dexterous robot). Human-robot interaction studies compellingly demonstrate that humans readily and routinely engage emotionally with technology (Turkle et al., 2006; Fong, Nourbakhsh, Dautenhahn 2003; Duffy 2003; Gratch et al., 2002; Breazeal, 2002; Cassell et al., 2000; Reeves and Nass, 1996). Yet other researchers express concern over the moral veracity of human-robot interaction, suggesting that such relations may lead to psychological impoverishment (Kahn et al., 2004), or are disconcertingly inauthentic and therefore morally problematic (Turkle et al., 2006) and risk fundamentally altering the nature of social interaction, giving rise to a potentially “synthetic social society” (Zhao, 2006, p. 402). Sociable robots require investigation because “they are not a medium through which humans interact, but rather a medium with which humans interact. Acting as human surrogates, humanoid social robots extend the domain of human expression, discourse and communication...” (ibid.). Thus, the main research question for my doctoral studies asks: “How do sociable technologies (e.g. sociable robots) function as social products: artefacts, environments, services, and systems through which new social relationships are created?” Guided by Turkle’s (concept of the ‘evocative object’ (2007, 1995, 1984), I explore the extent to which relationships with even simple sociable robot provokes new thinking, including questions about alive/not alive; person/nonperson; human/machine and what is particular to being human in a highly technologized world.

I align my work with theorizers of science and technology who note the absence of the constructedness of subjects and objects, resemblances and differences, and the embodied grounds of knowing and action within artificial intelligence (AI) work (e.g. Kember, 2003; Brooks, 2002; Adam, 1998 & 1994; Balsamo, 1996; Suchman, 1987; Dreyfus, 1963). Recent AI projects have shifted orientation toward embodied learning and social situationedness, evident in such descriptions as: “...a sociable robot is able to communicate and interact with us, understand and even relate to us, in a personal way. It should be able to understand us and itself in social terms” (Breazeal, 2002, p. 1).

The title “Everyday Intimate Machines” foregrounds my object of study as affective technological artefacts situated within domestic practices in the micro-social context of everyday life. Variously referred to as friendly machines (Crowley and Kanda, 2005), socially intelligent robots (MacDorman and Ishiguro, 2006) and relational artefacts (Turkle et al., 2006; Turkle, 1995, 1984), the sociable robot is designed to express the desire “to be attended to, of wanting to have their ‘needs’ satisfied, and of being gratified when they are appropriately nurtured” (Turkle et al., 2004). Some scholars regard the sociable robot as a new medium of communication that affects the way we see ourselves and relate to others and “extend new possibilities for expression, communication and interaction in everyday life” (Mayer, 1999, p. 328; see also Zhao, 2006; Turkle et al., 2006). Thrift (2004) suggests that sociable robots represent a site beyond conventional structures and sites of communication, while Hegel et al. (2008) contend that sociable robots serve as a new interface between humans and technology.

Orona (1997) notes, “grounded theory provides a framework for taking observations, intuitions, and understandings to a conceptual level and provides the guidelines for the discovery and formulation of theory” (p. 182). Using grounded theory (Corbin and Strauss, 1990; Glaser and Strauss, 1967) and complementary qualitative research methods, my project explores domestic practices that include relations with a constellation (or ecology) of technology (e.g. laptops, Roombas, social robots). Dealing with such little understood phenomena as sociable robotics in the home, it is improbable to “develop precise and fixed procedures that will yield stable and definitive empirical content” (Clarke 1997, p. 65; see also Clarke, 2008). Beginning with sensitizing concepts (Padgett, 2004; Glaser, 1978), “those background ideas that inform the overall research problem” (Charmaz, 2003), these guiding concepts are tested, improved, and refined (Blumer, 1954) within the research context, while the interrelationships between the concepts help construct theory “that better capture and reflect the empirical terrain” (Clarke 1997, p. 65). In this project, evocative objects, emotional machines, and robot ethics provisionally constitute sensitizing concepts.

Data collection involves traditional qualitative methods conducted in natural settings (Turkle et al., 2006; Lull, 1980) through observation and conversation with social technology users (Forlizzi et al., 2007, 2004; Forlizzi and DiSalvo, 2006) organized around participant observation and in-depth interviews. Ethnographic approaches permit the researcher to comprehend as completely as possible, with minimal disturbance, relevant communicative and socio-cultural habits of the research participants (Bruyn, 1966; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Data collection will also include virtual methods, such as on-line observations and email interviews as well as documentary sources including those in the printed and electronic media (e.g. webpage contents, discussion threads in mailing lists, conversation in online chat room etc.).

Completed coursework at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication provides a strong background in Science, Society, and Risk theory (Dr. William Leiss, Spring 2007); Somatechnics: Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and Technology (Dr. Susan Stryker, Fall 2007); and Frankfurt School: A Critical Theory of Culture, Communication and Society (Dr. Shane Gunster, Winter 2008). Additionally, my comprehensive exam areas (in progress) provide me with a deep theoretical grounding in the areas of ‘feminist perspectives on science and technology’ and ‘theories of technology and society’. My senior supervisor, Dr. Jan Marontate together with committee members Dr. Kirsten McAllister (Technology, The Body, Knowledge, Summer 2004) and Dr. Peter Chow-White (Social Construction of Communication Technologies, Fall 2007) will provide solid guidance in my research. Since beginning my doctoral studies at Simon Fraser University, I have maintained a consistent GPA of 4.00 (“A”). I am also one of the volunteer founders and editors of Stream: Culture/Politics/Technology, a peer-reviewed, open-access e-journal published by the Communication Graduate Student Caucus at Simon Fraser University.

Over the course of this year (2008), I have complemented my studies with conference presentations in line with my research interests. Notably, I have presented at (1) Canadian Communication Association. “Hacking, Hacktivism and Women: Hacking the Shadow Myth of Technology,” University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC (June 2008); (2) The 1st Annual Conference on Human-Robot Personal Relationships. “Looking Forward to Sociable Robots,” Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands (June, 2008); and (3) The 6th Global Conference Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. “Abject Cyborg Woman,” Mansfield College, Oxford, UK (September, 2008). I would like to note that “Looking Forward to Sociable Robots” has been submitted for a special issue of International Journal of Social Robotics and “Abject Cyborg Woman” is nominated as a selected conference paper to be developed for future publication. Finally, as an undergraduate student I co-authored an article which originated from a course paper entitled, The Ever Entangling Web: A Study of Ideologies and Discourses in Advertising to Women (Journal of Advertising, 28(2), 33-49) which has subsequently been republished as a chapter in the book Readings in Advertising, Society, and Consumer Culture (2007). As co-author, I conducted all of the semi-structured long interviews, transcribed, and assisted in the writing, editing, and revising process.

I am on schedule to begin this dissertation by mid 2009. My hope is to better understand the socio-cultural impact of emerging sociable robots as they continue their encroachment into intimate spaces through therapeutic, emotional, social, companion, and surrogate relationships with human-users. With the increasing number of service robots currently in operation, combined with forecasted demographic shifts in Japan, Europe, and the North America it is clear that there is a rapidly increasing ecology of “machines to live with” (Thrift 2004, p. 470; Brooks, 2002). This study will contribute to emerging scholarship that seeks to make sense of interactions between people and sociable robots outside the laboratory and “in the wild” (Sabanovic et al., 2006) and will contribute to understanding how people will negotiate with sociable robots’ within progressively intimate spaces.


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Anonymous said...

Maybe it can be useful to integrate more science-fiction in a social theory perspective. In the field of science-fiction, there is Iain M. Banks' Culture cycle, in which the Culture can be conceived as a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy. The Culture cycle is a very interesting way to develop philosophical and political reflections on the potential role of “intelligent” machines in an advanced society:

Glenda Shaw Garlock said...

thank you so much!