Talking Robots: A Critical Examination of Strategies for Public Engagement with Robotic Technologies

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Health and Life Sciences


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Description Robotics encompasses a broad range of academic disciplines including engineering, biology, neuroscience, psychology and artificial intelligence. It is a significant area of emerging science, and one where views regarding fact and fiction are particularly confused. How will robots impact on our daily lives? How intelligent are robots? What do robots tell us about the meaning of life? These are just a few of the questions publics may pose about future developments.

'Talking Robots' aimed to:

- Investigate existing public attitudes to robotic technologies and their potential social impacts.
- Examine engagement strategies and their effectiveness, using robotics engagement events as examples.

The 'Talking Robots' project focused on public attitudes towards robotics (as an up and coming area of science and technology) and the types of approaches to engagement that were utilised within the robotics field. It sought to explore how individuals view robotics research, what public concerns exist about robotic technologies, and how people could become engaged by these topics. Participant reactions to eleven engagement events with a robotic focus were examined via 11 structured observations, 8 video observations and 61 semi-structured interviews. The semi-structured interviews involved three distinctive groups and perspectives of those involved in activities: 1) event organisers who arranged the activities, 2) engagers or experts that were involved in the activities, 3) audience participants or people who were engaged in activities.

The project's key findings include:

Perceptions of robotics are heavily influenced by media coverage and science fiction. This is recognised by both those who seek to engage publics and audiences alike and appears to make people more receptive to robotics than some other areas of science and technology (in particular ones which have generated media 'scare stories').

Specific areas of robotics seen as controversial include their use in industrial settings, by the military and medical/social care. Many concerns focus on the perception that robots could replace humans or use human-like qualities (judgement, morality etc.) inappropriately. Engagers and audiences alike are open to discussion here and more work is needed in terms of how robotics impacts on our views and perceptions around humanity and social interaction.

Key questions of interest from the publics' perspective include how robotic is something? What qualities does something need in order to be defined as 'robotic'? And where will this take us in future generations?

Engagers and audiences have a range of motivations for becoming involved in public engagement activities, including pragmatic choices, interest in a subject area, and the activity's potential to inform, educate and entertain.

Traditional notions of the need to increase understanding, awareness and information, drawing on concepts of scientific literacy and public understanding of science (as opposed to public engagement with science), remain pervasive amongst public engagers and audiences alike.

Engagers who participate see value in receiving public recognition and comment on their field of research, though it is unclear to audience members how public questions or attitudes can or may influence the research in question.

Perception of the policy role public engagement might take is difficult for publics to conceptualise. Who should be 'engaged' and how their views can or may influence were topics for discussion. This was the case across activities, including those with a more active policy or two-way remit.

Publics have particular expectations of 'expertise' and how this should be presented; these expectations may sometimes be contradicted by more informal activities.

Practical aspects including facilitation, structure, organisation and awareness of the audience are central to an activity being perceived as successful. Appropriate planning and time to organise public engagement become problematic if they are overlooked.
Exploitation Route A considerable amount of learning has occurred with regards to the use of video data within this type of project and the video data is subject to ongoing analysis. This aspect will form part of the later dissemination of project findings, which have to date been circulated via the project website, presentation at academic conferences (including science communication, robotics and social science focused) and via professional networking. At least six future conference papers/sessions are planned, in addition to at least three journal publications currently in the process of being written. We also plan to continue our communication with practitioners and wider stakeholders to ensure the project findings are utilised by those working within public engagement.
Sectors Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Science Communication The Principle and Co-Investigator are frequently involved in training science communicators and engagement practitioners. The project has contributed to stimulating informed debate at the internationally renowned 'Science Communication Masterclass' which the investigators have co-developed. The Co-investigator, Dr Bultitude was awarded the Joshua Phillips Memorial Prize for Innovation in Science Engagement in recognition of her central role in connecting organisations and individuals within the field. Social Science The project findings were disseminated via professional conferences and publications. We also feel the interdisciplinary nature of the project team and our experiences warrants dissemination across the communities involved. The Principle and Co-Investigator have recently secured funding (from The Wellcome Trust) and held a symposium in 2009, which was a further opportunity to disseminate the project findings to a practitioner and academic audience. Robotics Throughout the duration of the project, links to the Robotics community have been maintained and nurtured, with project findings disseminated at two RoboFesta Conferences. In addition the Principle Investigator and Co-investigator were both invited in April 2008 to a Parliamentary Reception on Robotics at the House of Commons, which allowed them to further disseminate and network within this community.
First Year Of Impact 2008
Sector Education,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Societal

Description Talking robots : a critical examination of strategies for public engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to the STEG (Science and Technology Education Group) Research Group.

Similar presentations were also provided to Robafesta, to stimulate discussion and questions on the work.

This activity was over five years ago, unfortunatly records were not kept at the time.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009
Description Talking robots : examining public engagement with emerging robotic technologies 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Conference Poster Session

Activity was over five years ago, unfortunatly records were not kept at the time.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009