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We need to develop responsible social robotics

This is the message from the organisers behind the world’s largest international conference on humanities research into robotics. The title of the conference is What Social Robots Can and Should Do. The Research Network for Transdisciplinary Studies in Social Robotics (TRANSOR) is behind the conference – and the main organisers are two local philosophers from Aarhus University.

2016.10.04 | Anja Kjærgaard

1. Why is it important to have a conference on the subject of ‘social robotics’ at this moment in time? 

-We are at the onset of the ”robot revolution”—a technological revolution with more transformative potential than any other so far. According to a recent study by CEVEA, during the next two decades Denmark may lose one third of its current jobs to automatization. This will have profound socio-political and socio-economic consequences. We all know about the importance of being employed—politicians continue to promise “new jobs”—but the current trend towards automatization may be steering a large part of the population into unemployment. However, the primary focus of our conference is not socio-economic change but the equally disruptive socio-cultural consequences on the horizon. Our socio-cultural values are realized in human social interactions - if we manufacture new patterns of social interactions by putting robots into our workplaces and at home, we are engineering cultural change in ways we have never done before. The problem is that this sort of ”cultural engineering” is currently undertake without involving experts on culture, namely, researchers in the Humanities. The interdisciplinary field of Human-Robot Interaction Studies currently includes only few researchers from the Humanities. Neither the public nor policy makers are aware of the fact how urgent it is to include Humanities research into social robotics now.

2. You have succeeded in attracting international researchers with considerable professional expertise in the field – what can they contribute to the conference?

-As in our previous conference in 2014, we could gain as plenary speakers 13 of the most visible international top-researchers in the area who will present the larger trajectories of the current debate, such as: Can and should robots take on social roles? Can and should robots reason ethically and exhibit ‘good judgement’? Will the boundaries between humans and robots vanish, e.g., if we use sex-robots and machine-enhanced mobility (prosthetics)? What should our ethical relations towards robots be, if any? What are our responsibilities now, at the onset of the “robot revolution”? But we have also 74 talks in sessions and workshops presenting research on many different aspects of social robotics, e.g., discussing whether robots can/should have emotions, and specially, empathy, and whether they can/should become agents that act on norms like we do. Many talks focus on methodological questions, including reflections on the role of robot art, and conceptual and ethical implications of social robotics. The conference will also set particular focus on children-robot interaction—among other talks on the subject, the Center for Children’s Speculative Design, founded by Harvard and MIT researchers, will hold workshop on “Co-Designing Children-Robot Interaction,” accompanied by a (free) exhibition on “Children’s Imagined Robots” featuring drawings by children from 3 continents. The conference will also set particular focus on children-robot interaction—among other talks on the subject, the Center for Children’s Speculative Design, founded by Harvard and MIT researchers, will hold workshop on “Co-Designing Children-Robot Interaction,” accompanied by a (free) exhibition on “Children’s Imagined Robots” featuring drawings by children from 3 continents.

3. Is the overall aim of your research and the conference to get one step closer to achieving responsible social robotics?

-The aim of our own research project, supported by a Semper Ardens grant of the Carlsberg Foundation, is to create a new paradigm for how to regulate social robotics and their application. By integrating robotic research with empirical and conceptual research anchored in the humanities and social sciences, our project aims to compile a methodological foundation that makes it possible to develop responsible social robotics. The aim of the conference is the same. In many ways, the spread of social robots marks a turning point in human history, which requires us to address the consequences of the technological development. The robotics market is growing very fast and concerned roboticists and computer scientists have begun to call for regulations and value-driven designs. But in order to realize such value-driven design and to arrive at responsible robotics applications, social robotics needs to integrate the expertise of researchers in philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, art, sociology, education and communication science into human-robot Interaction research as currently undertaken by robotics, psychology, and cognitive science. There are currently two global initiatives for ‘responsible robotics’, which both will hold workshops at the conference, and we will discuss how responsible robotics can be implemented in concrete detail.

4. You both come from an academic background in philosophy. Why is it important to integrate humanities research into this field?

-Research on human-robot interaction has shown that due to biological mechanisms people have a strong tendency to interpret their dealings with robots as social interactions. So by designing a robot in a certain way I will elicit this or that likely emotional and conceptual reaction in a human interaction partner. This amounts to engineering of culture in ways which ethicists find potentially problematic, since it involves a form of manipulation. On the other hand, the specific cognitive effects that robots have on humans may be used in ways that are perfectly in agreement with, or even enhance, the socio-cultural values that we currently endorse, such as just justice, self-realization, autonomy etc. It is the business of the Humanities to analyze and describe socio-cultural practices, norms, and values, and their dynamics. To build social robotics, i.e., to engage in cultural engineering without involving the expertise of the Humanities, is not only irresponsible but also imprudent—it may lead to market products that a country’s ethical council or the public at large will reject. Vice versa, given that rapid development of social robotics, the Humanities can and should show that they have an indispensable role to play in society. It is an irony - the tragic kind - that the Danish government boosts research and education in engineering and reduces Humanities research and education at a time when they are most needed in engineering.

5. If you were to answer the general question posed in the conference title, how would you answer it? What can and should social robots do? 

- There are many applications, whose usefulness and value seem fairly uncontroversial, e.g., in autism therapy, while other applications are more ambiguous, e.g., as dietary coaches or destressing bystanders in patient-doctor conversation. The final answer is very simple: Social robots should help us to realize what is good in a human life. Of course that is an ‘empty’ answer—when it comes to human fulfillment we cannot describe a determinate goal but only how we need to conduct our search. If we conceive of the design of social robotics applications as a process of joint creation, involving roboticists, and, among other scientific disciplines, researchers from the Humanities, we have the best chances to make best use of the positive transformative potential of social robotics.

About the conference

The conference will be held 17-21 October at Aarhus University. Read more about the conference and register here: 


Further information



Johanna Seibt, Professor MSO
School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University
E-Mail: filseibt@cas.au.dk 
Tel.: +45 87162245



Marco Nørskov, Associate Professor
School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University
E-Mail: filmanp@cas.au.dk 
Tel.: +45 87162821