Emslie Horniman Award – Michael Berthin

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Award Holder: Michael Berthin
University: London School of Economics
Title of Research: An ethnographic examination of social robotics in Japan

This project involves both social robots in Japan and the daily life of disabled people at an independent living center. Social robots have recently become a hot topic in Japan because of a perceived demographic crisis caused by the aging population. The Japanese government has started to pursue a policy of funding and developing social robots to deal with this crisis. Briefly, the idea is that advanced social robots can care for the elderly. These social robots can provide social and emotional support, as companions, and also physical and practical support in daily life. The robots can compensate for any disabilities the elderly. Many in disability studies have made the argument that elderly should be understand as disabled as well, because many changes that help elderly also help disabled people and because, if the mainstream sees they themselves will become disabled as they age, they will probably have more sympathy with the aims of disabled people. In fact, in many of the narratives about Japan and social robots, the social robots are described as helpers for both the elderly and the disabled.  Therefore, examining social robots and disability together came to be worthwhile link within my fieldwork.

For my social robot research, I worked in two major research laboratories. From January 2009 until November 2009 I did day-to-day ethnographic fieldwork at ATR (Advanced Telecommunication Research Insitute) in the IRC laboratories (Intelligent Robot and Communication laboratories). I then did further fieldwork research at Asada Laboratories at Osaka University from November 2009 until February 2010. During this time, I was able to observe and participate in a project to test networked social robots at a shopping arcade in Universal Studios Japan and a project to develop a communication robot to assist elderly people who have dementia. Further, I was able to interact with people on other projects and learn about those as well. I spoke with researchers, attended meetings, and investigated how and why decisions are made in robotics research.

After this extended fieldwork was completed, I continued to meet both formally and informally with the robotics researchers I had become acquainted with and to continue to gather data. Further, this network allowed me to meet new people for my research. Interviewing, chatting, and interacting with roboticists, my findings stress the multifarious motives that drive different roboticists. In particular, their motivation (or motivations) often fall into three broad categories: science, engineering, and the “cool factor.”  Science covers those who want to do basic research about topics such as human cognition or emotions; engineering covers those who are interested in directly making practical and useful devices; finally, the “cool factor” covers those who are simply fascinated by robots or technology in and of themselves. These motivations, expressed both directly in speech as well as being infer-able from behavior, are different for each individual and even within the same individual across different situations.

While these are the roboticists motivations, in their day to day practice, roboticists approach their work as a kind of problem-solving. They work on the small technical problems that continually arise with a robot—when they design a new functionality or a new kind of behaviour, as well as when errors arise out of those new designs. They also continually think about what problem it is that their robot can solve. For example, one of the robots during my fieldwork is a full-body/ human-scale android version of one of the head researchers, Ishiguro-sensei. Ishiguro-sensei has made an extremely life-like replica of himself in the form of an android called Geminoid. While physically very impressive, Geminoid has little artificial intelligence. It is instead controlled remotely, through a system called tele-operation. An operators sits in front of a computer, with access to video, audio, and a number of other sensors. He or she, for example, speaks into a microphone which causes Geminoid to speak those words. Crudely, Geminoid acts as a very adcanced puppet. Roboticists at the laboratory have in turn spent a lot of time thinking about what such a tele-operated human-like android could be used for. One of their conclusions was that it could be used as an improved communication device. If someone travels far from home, for example a researcher at an international conference, they could use a Geminoid to sit down and have dinner with their wife, for example. This becomes the problem that Geminoid solves. Even if this problem was not the original impetus for making Geminoid, it is sought out as the necessary pair to their already developed solution.

While roboticists have their own motivations and approaches for developing social robots, there are also specificities to the Japanese case. Japanese have, according to some roboticsts and popular media, a completely unique attitude and approach towards robots.  The fascination that Japanese people across all generations have with manga (comics) is a case in point. Within manga, some of the most popular and famous characters are robots. While there is a strong image that robotics are for “otaku” (a word that conjures an image of a young, asocial male who is overly obsessed with manga, anime, video games, and technology), characters such as Doraemon have appeal across gender, age, and so on. These characters are cute and friendly. Japanese people associate robots with these characters, and therefore robots themselves are imagined as things that are cute and friendly . This is demonstrated by the fact that ordinary people, when asked about robots, spontaneously talk about cute robots and describe these robots as the kind that they want.

Further, Japan has a tradition of ideas and etiquette on how to handle and relate to objects (including, and perhaps especially, human-made objects). While this way of thinking is often expressed in English as “religious” or “spiritual”, these words do not fully capture this tradition. Rather people have the view that objects should be respected in and of themselves. This might be translated into an English word like “reverence,” but is based firmly in human social relations. For example, many Japanese indicate that they are taught to respect the time and effort someone took to prepare a thing. And they should therefore act towards that thing accordingly. While not everyone holds these ideas, a substantial number do.

But my fieldwork also suggests that there is not a radical disjuncture between Japanese and others in their approach to social robots. While the robotics research studied in this project was physically in Japan, that research is part of a larger body of laboratories and researchers across the world. Robotics research is international. The laboratories in Japan include substantial numbers of  non-Japanese members who come from places such as Europe, the United States, Brazil, and Asia. A great deal of my informants are not Japanese, and they are

At the outset of the project, my aim and hope would be to work with social robots in the use of care. After my work in the laboratory it became clear that such fieldwork was not an option because the technology is not developed enough to see widespread use, and so I looked to continue developing the same themes with a different human-machine relation. Robot as a word and as a concept is incredibly difficult to pin down, and most definitions by experts stress simply that it is an autonomous machine that assists in some human work. This definition could fit a wide range of objects that are not generally considered to be robots. But looking at these border areas (between what is a robot and what is a non-robot) has turned out to be very productive.

For these reasons, I came to do fieldwork at a center for people with disabilities, specifically those in wheelchairs. People with disabilities are often the focus of new robots, including social robots, though no social robots are used by the people at this center. I envisioned wheelchairs themselves as an object for my research. Wheelchairs are not like social robots in that people don’t have dialogues with them, but they are also intimate machines in the sense that people rely on them and spend all their time in them. Compared to computers or cellphones, which some may find necessary in a metaphorical sense, wheelchairs are much more pressingly needed by their users, I would argue, and in this sense more fully integrated into their users’ lives—they are more intimate. They are also in some sense autonomous (or at least automated) mechanical devises, fitting the broad definition of robot that was mentioned above.

As I worked at the center, I came to discover that the people there rely heavily on helpers to assist in daily tasks such as eating, going to the bathroom, getting something from their bag, using a cellphone, and many other day-to-day tasks. These helpers have also been a focus of my research because the interaction with helpers is close to the intended aim of advanced social robots. A great deal of the interest in social robots is focused on designing devices that are flexible and can facilitate independent living for those requiring care. Helpers are also very socially involved, in a way that is unremarkable for a human of course but not for a robot. For instance, they talk, joke, laugh, argue, ‘hang out’, etc. If robots are going to be used in such a role, then it is worthwhile to examine how this role is currently filled by people. This is also not the kind of research which may be done by roboticists, who see their work strictly confined to developing and testing their robots in limited contexts.

Through this fieldwork at the disability center, I observed and talked with people about their relations with wheelchairs as well as with actual human helpers. I did this by attending the centre almost daily from April 2010 until the end of September 2010. As a regular visitor and member of the center I spoke with people directly about my research interests—asking them “what is a wheelchair for you?”, for example–and also attended the daily activities at the center to observe and participate.

In my dissertation, I am examining both these field-sites through the concept of ‘problems.’ On the one hand, roboticists approach their work as a problem-solving activity. They seek problems that they can provide in the way of robot solutions. On the other hand, those at the disability center oppose the notion that disability should be seen as a problem of the body rather than a problem of society. In disability theory, this is called the medical model of disability and the social model of disability respectively. For example, if a person using a wheelchair cannot go up a staircase, one way of looking at it is to say that the problem is they are in a wheelchair and that they cannot use stairways. This is the medical model of disability. The social model of disability frames the issue in a different way. According to the social model, the problem is that the design of the staircase and the building such that it excludes certain kinds of people (people in wheelchairs). People at the independent living center often told me that, for them, their bodies are just “normal”. Their main frustrations with disability were the social barriers they faced—poor accessibility for wheelchairs and others kind of discrimination that they faced in everyday life.

Insofar as roboticists have a model of disability, in my fieldwork it was implicitly medical. In one project I worked in, the task was to construct a robot that would help elderly patients with dementia have video telephone conversations with each other (and perhaps also others as well). These elderly people often have little chance to engage in extensive social interaction through conversation, and when they do, they often have difficulty because they have trouble staying focused on the task. As I learned through my fieldwork, the roboticsts approach such a project first as having a problem and a goal state to fix that problem, which can then be implemented as a robot solution. In this case, the problem was these elderly patients brain disorder which caused them to engage in ‘bad’ conversations, defined as those conversations where there is not an equal  amount of conversational time for both participants. A good each conversation would have it such that each participant talks for about the same length of time, in successive turns, back and forth. This is what the roboticists called a “catch ball” conversation. The robot would therefore attempt to intervene in the conversation, prodding the elderly users towards a “catch ball” conversation. In dissertation, I show how this is approached through the medical model as the roboticists take it for granted that the problem is in the individual and that the solution is to make them accord with a static social reality.

Through the development of these ideas, my research hopes to contribute to anthropology  as a dialogue between science and technology studies and disability studies.  While there are many examples of disability being discussed in anthropology,  the disability studies perspective is still not widely incorporated into anthropological thinking. But disability studies has much to offer anthropology, particularly in our understanding and our analysis of difference. By incorporating my research on social robots as well, I hope to contribute to broad questions of anthropological interest such as “What is the difference between machine and body?” and “What kind of bodies are problematic and why?”

The topic of problems and technical solutions also happens to be very timely in the case of the anthropology of Japan, because of the March 2011 earthquake and the resulting incidents at the Fukushima nuclear plant. In the wake of these tragedies, many in Japan have started to question the role that science and technology takes in the country and whether it is being ethically and safely controlled. An emerging discussion has arisen around what role science and technology should take in the future as well, and a critical understanding of how engineers and scientists both envision and actually practice their work can usefully contribute to these discussions. This research should therefore contribute both to general anthropological and theoretical interest, and also to ongoing discussions specific to the Japanese case.