Robots can now be found in numerous professional sectors. In healthcare for example, robotic applications are used to monitor patients, alert nurses and dispense medication. They can also assist in surgery and facilitate rehabilition. Robotic exoskeletons can help patients with spinal injuries to walk again. “Difficulties come when robots are designed without the input of end users, as well those who have to work with them,” explains REELER project coordinator Cathrine Hasse, professor of cultural anthropology and learning at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. “This leads to robots being developed that are not properly adapted to the actual environment in which they are intended to be used. Our thinking was that we must be able to do better.”
Robots in the workplace
The 3-year EU-funded REELER project was launched in January 2017 with the aim of bringing an anthropological perspective to robotics in the workplace. “The question we asked ourselves was this: How much do people who create robots take the end user and people affected by robots without being intended users into account?” says Hasse. “We were interested in finding out how much of this goes into the design phase.” Hasse and her team looked at the manufacture of different types of robots for different sectors. “We’d then visit hospitals to see how things were working in practice,” she says. The team found a lot of issues that were not considered during the design phase. In healthcare, these included a tendency to overlook the impact of robots on nurses in their everyday work; the requirement to strap a robotic skeleton onto a patient, for example. “We saw a real need for common ground between robot makers and end users, as well as professionals affected by robots, early in the development process,” says Hasse.
Ethical AI development
To achieve this common ground, the project has called for the introduction of ‘alignment experts’ – a new profession in robot and AI development that combines expertise in social sciences and economics as well as technology. “Social scientists and roboticists need to work hand in hand,” says Hasse. “We conclude that alignment experts will be needed to expand the designers’ notions of ‘users’ to include both end users as well as people affected in their everyday work.” A series of awareness-raising tools also came out of this fieldwork. These aim to help robot developers put themselves in the shoes of end users. Exercises include ‘mini publics’, where citizens affected by robots, such as nurses, and construction and factory workers, can speak directly to decision-makers and robot developers. “Instead of giving answers to pre-formulated questions, these deliberative mini-publics explore and simulate general public opinion,” says Hasse. Another toolbox exercise is social drama, in which roboticists are invited to play out scenarios in which they are the end user. One scenario for example encourages participants to imagine they are an elderly person in a care home. “Putting themselves in this position makes people think about issues they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise,” says Hasse. This concept has since been taken up by a major German technology firm. Hasse is confident that there is now growing awareness about the important social aspects of technological innovation.
REELER, robot, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), healthcare, hospital, nurse, construction, factory, technology, economics