How Do Cultural and Ethical Factors Influence the Acceptance of Social Robots? - Oliver Korn on His Research within AGYA

One application area of social robots is the support of elderly people who will eventually need assistance. Already today, the demand for professional caregivers exceeds the current supply. With the technological progress in robotics and affective computing, social robots will become more and more important to take over certain tasks such as housekeeping, healthcare and therapy.
When social robots are becoming our caregivers, we need to determine the technological, societal and ethical potentials and limitations of their usage. Under which conditions can they become companions and what are the ethical issues that might arise in such a human-robot companionship? What are the challenges in different societies? These are the topics AGYA member Oliver Korn, Professor for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at Offenburg University, addresses in his AGYA research. He outlines his current AGYA research project and reflects why he enjoys being a member of the academy.

Oliver Korn:

Social robots are a big topic in research. However, I think that it will take some time before social robots will become part of our daily lives. Maybe, when I myself will be sitting in a comfortable armchair in a retirement home, a social robot will help me to get up or even to use the bathroom. Social robotics is an interdisciplinary and intercultural research area, and AGYA offers the perfect setting for such research. Discussing with my fellow AGYA members from various disciplines, we developed the idea for my current project: a comparative study on the acceptance of social robots in the Arab world and Germany. In our AGYA study, we investigate questions like: What kind of support do people want and accept from social robots? Which social or ethical dimensions need to be considered when developing social robots? Do people in the Arab countries prefer robotic companions in housekeeping while in Germany they are also considered as adequate caregivers? For our study, we interviewed hundreds of respondents in Germany and in six Arab countries. Now, we analyse the data to identify culturally suitable areas.
When innovative ideas meet, scientific achievements follow. AGYA provides a platform for innovative research which is really special. For computer scientists like me, the interdisciplinary and intercultural exchange within AGYA is an exceptional benefit. In computer science, many colleagues focus on technological aspects. Being a member of AGYA helps me to look beyond algorithms and consider the cultural and social contexts in which the solutions are used. Although robots are products of information technology, we need to know and understand the conventions and habits of the users: social robots must be developed according to the needs of the target society.

Without AGYA, this comparative study would hardly have been feasible. Funding options for empirical studies from an intercultural perspective are scarce. Now AGYA supports these types of projects. Furthermore, it allows me to discuss ideas with colleagues beyond disciplines and borders. For example, we framed the questions for the survey together: the diverse backgrounds and cultural sensitivity brought in by my fellow AGYA members were extremely helpful. AGYA also facilitated many contacts to local actors and scientific institutions, which helped carrying out the study in the Arab countries.

Teamwork within AGYA is inspiring and productive: the findings are presented during a workshop at the international ACM PETRA conference and will be published in an international journal. The workshop brings together leading experts in the field of robotics. At the conference we will not only present the results of our study but also provide a platform for German, European and Arab scientists to exchange on social robots. My personal goal is to strengthen the collaboration between computer scientists in the Arab world and Germany. I really do believe that as a scientist you can and should build bridges.

What are social robots? Oliver Korn explains their main features.

Robots are machines capable of capturing their environment through sensors and, most important, capable of reacting to using actuators. Social robots can not only respond to physical signals but also to emotional cues of humans. For instance, in order to move a patient to another bed, social robots should recognise if a patient is in distress or pain and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Japan is a pioneer in the area of social robotics: The Japanese “Robear“ is a successfully implemented prototype of a nursing robot that can lift patients and thus provides assistance to caretakers. This shows how social robots offer manifold opportunities for hospitals or care facilities since they can take over physically intense work. However, they can also take over activities where people prefer a machine over a person, for example when using the bathroom. Social robots will not necessarily put jobs at risk but will take over certain tasks and complement the team. This applies also to other sectors, like domestic assistance. In Europe, however, it will probably take another 20 years before social robots will be commonly accepted and used.

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