10 October 2017

When I arrive at the Van Abbemuseum, the room was already filling up. Among the invited participants were professionals and clients from the field of care for people with special needs, as well as artists and data scientists. The first group, forming the majority of the audience, is in the focus of the event, as the inclusion of robotics are already transforming the fields of patient care and special education. Some of these participants already have experience with robots, yet, I sense an air of apprehension as we wait for the program to start.

To ease the audience into the subject, and to create a cheerful atmosphere, the friendly visitor-robot of Van Abbemuseum rolls in. The robot was designed to help people who are unable to visit the museum to experience it just like any other visitor. By controlling the robot they can move around in the physical space of the exhibition and interact with the visitors present there and then, as well as access some additional features, such as zooming in on artworks to view details.

AGENCY: the biggest advantage of robots over human caregivers

The key concept here, and generally in the field of assistive robotics, is giving agency: aiming at providing the highest possible autonomy and level of control to the user, where traditional care or technology might be more limiting. The main difference is, before the emergence of these robots, people with disabilities often relied on a human caregiver, which created a feeling of dependence or helplessness on the side of the patient, but when the caregiver is replaced by a machine, and this machine is fully operated by the patient, these feelings are eliminated by a restored sense of agency.

After the short intro, the visitor-robot navigates itself out of the room and Ine Gevers, founder and director of the Robot Love Embassy takes the stage. She shows us slides of different assistive robots, some recognized by a few audience members, such as Paro, the cuddly seal, designed to comfort its users, or a Telenoid that acts as a tool for upgrading tele-communication into a physical experience.

CONTROVERSY: benign illusion or deceit of patients

The Telenoid is the first one to spark some controversy among the audience. Some audience members argue that it is a form of deceit, misleading the patients (often struggling with dementia) to believe they are actually, physically interacting with their loved ones, instead of the robot. Someone advocates for the importance of choice, the elderly should be given the decision whether or not they wish to engage in such interaction. Someone else, however, argues that even this mediated form of interaction is more or better than no interaction at all, or a solely virtual interaction, such as a video-call. The illusion of physical contact with their loved ones can help the patients feel better.

CONCERNS: technological dependence, hackability, humanization

As Ine moves on to thought-provoking questions to stimulate the brainstorming, the audience seems to become slightly reserved and critical towards the new technology. Even developments generally perceived as positive, such as robotic prosthetics are scrutinized, and questions on technological dependence and its consequences (What happens if the technology breaks down or is not available?) are raised, as well as concerns about hackability.

Can dependence be regarded as a form of relationship between human and robot? - One audience member asks. Most disagree. This leads the audience into considering how the humanization of robots occurs, and how we as humans tend to project emotions onto inanimate objects - it is possible for humans to feel empathy towards inanimate objects or fictional characters, but is it possible for robots to conceive empathy?

To end the program, the moderators call us to participate in a quick audience survey. We are asked to answer yes-and-no questions using the cards distributed in the beginning of the program, depicting a green robot for “yes” (agree) red robot for “no” (disagree). Though the answers are not recorded, I get the impression that the audience remained generally optimistic about robotics, thus giving a green light for robots to enter our lives, and red ‘robots’ are raised more to respond questions about how, where, and to what extent we should allow robots to do so.

Image by Niek Tijsse Klasen