Understanding the relationship between culture and robotics will improve the human experience for diverse populations, according to a new book edited by researchers from UNSW's Creative Robotics Lab.

A new book argues that examining the cultural context of social robotics will help promote productive human-robot futures. Social robotics refers to any interface that manages interactions between humans and machines, including assistive technologies and new media art. These technologies provide opportunities for positive transformational change in unprecedented ways, says lead editor UNSW’s Dr Belinda J. Dunstan.

“Culture shapes the design and application of social robots, and conversely robots impact our human cultures. [The relationship is political, economic and social;] it cannot be purely technological,” says the expert in the appearance, movement and cultural implications of social robots.

Cultural Robotics: Social Robots and the Emergent Cultural Ecologies is edited by the academic leads of the Creative Robotics Lab (CRL) at UNSW’s School of Art & Design: Dr Dunstan (Human Futures); Dr Scott Andrew Brown (Assistive Technologies); and Dr Deborah Turnbull Tillman (Culture and Technology). The book’s three parts align with the lab’s research streams, representing the diverse applications for social robots.

The CRL, founded by Professor Mari Velonaki in 2011, provides a collaborative research and educational space to advance interaction between humans and machines through creative and innovative interfaces. Its focus is transdisciplinary and inclusive.

“The book argues for social robotics research to be democratised, shaped by teams with a diversity of backgrounds,” Dr Brown says. “The research is informed by both experts and non-experts and tested in both traditional and non-traditional platforms.”

It features contributions from 15 countries, including academics, creative practitioners, designers and people from marginalised communities, such as neurodivergent people and people living with disability. 

The research critically engages with social robotics across diverse contexts, from non-fungible tokens (NFTs) [unique digital assets, such as art, music, sports collectibles, recorded on blockchains] to drones to assistive technologies for people living with disability to interactive and media artworks.

Examining the ethics of robot design

The aesthetics of robots exemplifies the interrelationship between culture and robotics, says Dr Dunstan. “Social robot forms are not conceived in a void; they build on histories of artifact design [and they contribute to our understandings of society and culture].” 

However, many designers do not consider their cultural context, claiming designs are driven by interaction requirements, user preferences or pure inspiration, she says. “This can limit or complicate the reception of robots and their subsequent success.”

“Human Futures,” Part One, introduces research from artists, practitioners and social robotics researchers looking at technology, ethics and the appearance design of robots.

In the opening chapter, Dr Dunstan partners with Associate Professor Guy Hoffman, an expert on design and social aspects of human-robot interactions from Cornell University, to consider the origins of three predominant design tropes: the human replica, the futuristic robot and the cute companion.

“While these normative forms are not inherently problematic, or always inappropriate, they each come with ethical and cultural implications,” Dr Dunstan says. The human replica, for example, might trigger uneasiness through its presentation of artificial intelligence in an ‘uncanny’ humanlike form whereas the futuristic robot reproduces a 100-year-old nostalgic, ‘futuristic’ look associated with conservative family and gender roles.

Roboticists have a responsibility to integrate informed aesthetic choices, acknowledging their influence in shaping socio-cultural norms, she says. “Rather than a technocentric forward-march of social-robot development, we need to consciously incorporate cultural meaning-making into the design process.”

Image: Pathetic Fallacy, 2014 by Elena Knox. Photo by Maja Baska for Tin Sheds Gallery, 2022.

Taking social responsibility for inclusion

Assistive technologies would also benefit from greater cultural consideration, Dr Brown says. “Technology has largely been designed for the ‘middle of the middle’. Consequently, many well-intended assistive technologies fail to embrace the strengths of the individual,” he says. 

“They may aid with accessibility, but often they don’t recognise the importance of inclusion or people’s desire to experience the world on their own terms.”

Assistive technology is often framed as problem-solving in line with the medical model of disability, he says. “Here disability and neurodiversity are pathologized, requiring a ‘cure’ for afflictions that position the person as ‘less than’,” he says. “However, technologies designed for and by marginalised communities can augment and empower the user.”

“Assistive Technologies”, Part Two of the book, platforms academic alongside non-traditional robotics research conducted by neurodivergent people and people with a disability. Researchers consider strengths-based approaches to social disability. 

The social disability model recognises that disability stems from communities, services and spaces that aren’t accessible or inclusive; we have a social responsibility to remove barriers that restrict the life choices of disabled and neurodivergent people.

“This model places the user at the centre of the design process,” Dr Brown says. “Community-led research recognises the value of lived experience in understanding and overcoming the many mismatches between people with a disability and their environment.”

In “Towards an Autistic User Experience (aUX) Design for Assistive Technologies,” Dr Brown partners with Dr Sebastian Trew, an autistic researcher from Australian Catholic University. aUX embraces the co-design, development and implementation of technologies to improve autistic people’s everyday experiences through their use of technology.

By altering our frameworks for engaging with disability, we can transform our design processes, they argue. “Disability studies, [for example] consider[s] people with disability as capable social actors and not passive recipients of society and culture,” Dr Trew says. 

“The viewpoint places significant value on the importance of disability rights, agency and well-being and brings the voice of people with disability to the foreground”. 

Technology designers must overcome a long history of paternalizing people living with disability, Dr Brown says. “Instead, we need to ask how we can better reflect our vibrant communities by developing assistive technologies that adapt to individual strengths.”

The collaborative culture of care in applied robotics

Creative practitioners make vital contributions to more traditional robotics research, including through the testing of robotics in non-traditional platforms, such as museum and gallery spaces, says Dr Turnbull Tillman. 

“Museum and gallery floors are sites where humans gather to remember, reflect and re-imagine their histories, present and futures. These performative spaces elevate culture and distribute it en masse.” 

Applied robotics provoke new interdisciplinary modes of interactive media, audience engagement and artistic collaboration. “Their experiential nature disrupts the curator- artist/artwork relationship in favour of co-facilitating experiences, staging experiments, and building data, extending cultural experiences beyond the gallery and into the public sphere.”

In Part Three, “Creative Platforms and their Communities,” leading experimental artists and designers engage with the dialogic space created through applied robotics. “The case studies demonstrate the highly collaborative nature of social robotics and the care required to contextualise them as social and by extension cultural,” she says. 

In “Rouge and Robot: The Disruptive Feminine”, performance artist Lian Loke and architect Dagmar Reinhardt discuss code_red (2021), a feminist artwork that integrates a robotic arm applying red lipstick, and a call for women to participate in social robotics design, creation and research. 

This automation of an intimate feminine personal-care ritual questions traditional subject/object boundaries in human-robot interactions and introduces notions of “collaborative care”, says Dr Turnbull Tillman. 

“It provides keen insight into the use of robots for cultural practices. Loke and Reinhardt speculate on the future role of robots in the performative creation of self, exploring intimacy and touch, biology and machinery, vulnerability and strength.” 

code_red was part of SHErobots, an exhibition engaging with the history and output of women’s pioneering work in robotics. Co-curated by A/Prof. Loke, A/Prof. Reinhardt and Dr Turnbull Tillman, it questioned what automating the feminine might look like, or what women might do with automation, exemplifying the interplay between culture and robotics.

This translation from creative to cognitive to expression through social robotics is a contemporary form of mark-making, Dr Turnbull Tillman says. “It’s essential we engage critically with how, where and with whom we undertake this mark-making to better understand our new realities.”

This involves consulting a diverse community of voices, she says. “Technology is not something that's coming for us from outer space, technology is human activity, and what we see in our research, is very different to the narrative in popular media,” she says. 

“We must take an active role in shaping it and critically reflecting on it. This is incredibly important because this isn’t science fiction, this is next generation. It’s here.”

Image: code_red video still (2023), Lian Loke and Dagmar Reinhardt  

Lead image: SHErobots exhibition. Photo by Maja Baska for Tin Sheds Gallery, 2022.

This article was originally published in 2023.

Written by Kay Harrison