Research

Research aims

The aim of this project, which is to run from July 2016 to July 2021, is to explore and establish the method paradigm of  Integrative Social Robotics (ISR), a new approach that systematically combines social robotics research with research on socio-cultural practices and values as undertaken in the Humanities (anthropology, ethics, value theory, education research, linguistics and communication studies, phenomenology, ontology, knowledge representation, epistemology) and the Human and Social Sciences (psychology, cognitive science, sociology, and management). The ISR approach is a targeted response to growing concerns, both within the robotics community as well as in the professional and public debate on socio-cultural and ethical values, that an unregulated social robotics industry may create profound cultural changes. According to the current set-up for the production of social robotics applications, the RD&D process (research, design, and development) in social robotics proceeds largely unencumbered by interactions with professional research in ethics, value-theory or empirical studies of socio-cultural practices; normative considerations enter at best after the technology is developed and ready-made products are to be selected for use by policy-makers and law-givers, who turn to ethics councils and the empirical Humanities to gauge the socio-cultural implications of the relevant applications.

This serial arrangement—first development, then professional evaluation of socio-cultural significance, and finally legal regulation—has two crucial drawbacks. On the one hand, due to the mentioned sequentialization, research on the cultural-ethical implications and commercial potential of social robotics applications currently is lagging far behind the rapid developments in robot technology, and the advice that policy and law makers can receive from national ethical councils is not fully informed. On the other hand, as long as the methods and categories of value and social interaction research in the Humanities are not included in the interdisciplinary scope of “HRI-research” (human-robot interaction research) and “interaction studies”—currently mainly consisting of quantitative studies in psychology and sociology— the RD&D process in social robotics misses out on important resources for innovation and anticipatory adjustments to expectable ethical and legal regulation. In contrast, according to the ISR method, Humanities research on ethical, conceptual, and socio-cultural norms and values is both informed by and informs all stages of the “RD&D” process of social robotics. Since so-called ‘social’ robots are no longer tools but interfere with the sphere of human social interactions at the (preconscious and conscious) semiotic level of social agency, the ISR approach proposes that the RD&D in social robotics should be joined, from the very beginning, with professional research in disciplines whose concepts and methods have been designed to explore, empirically and hermeneutically, the profound complexity of human social interactions and the cultural values constituted by these practices. The ISR approach thus envisages a new proactive involvement of Humanities research in social robotics, in addition to the latter’s traditional reflective stance, involving Humanities research at all “technology readiness levels.”

The ISR approach is ‘user-driven design’ writ large—technology development is driven not by individual but by socio-cultural preferences about valuable interactions. To put it succinctly, while the current method of creating social robotics applications first asks what social robots can do and afterwards what they should do, the ISR approach argues that social robotics applications should be driven by insights into what social robots can and should do. The project aims to introduce the ISR approach and to demonstrate its viability and benefits at the theoretical and the practical level.

More specifically, the project shall:

(Research aim 1): work out in full detail the new method paradigm of Integrative Social Robotics (ISR), a new approach for the development of normatively viable social robotics applications that brings research in the Humanities/Human Sciences to bear on human-robot interaction research, and vice versa;

(Research aim 2): demonstrate the viability and benefits of the ISR approach by implementing it, i.e., by creating and testing several new social robotics applications, as well as by exploring some of the cognitive mechanisms underlying these applications.

The emphasis of this project is on research aim 2, serving as ‘proof of concept’ for research aim 1. In accordance with the ISR method, we use value-theoretic insights should provide the primary heuristics for the development of applications and focus on human-robot interactions that potentially enhance human personal and social well-being as conceived in present-day ‘Western’ societies, namely, interactions that increase (perceived) fairness, authenticity, self-realization, and (moral and epistemic) autonomy. These normative goals are conjoined with fundamental descriptive research questions about human-robot interaction, so that research activities for aim 2 explore in tandem what robots ‘should and can’ do.