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“Expert Meeting on Robotic development”- Nadine Grinberg & Swantje Schaeuble

Imagine: A woman brings her boyfriend to work every day. They take the metro together. She takes care he doesn’t fall but somehow he also appears independent. He makes a rigid but friendly impression. In fact, he would seem over-alert if it wasn’t for that slight, endearing smile. ’He’ is made from plastic and his smile is a black stripe of paint slightly bending upwards on the ends. His name is Pepper and he is a social robot developed to keep humans company.[1] This example of a robot involved in a relationship with a human is highlighted in an episode of Robo Sapiens, a documentary on how robot development affects human lives now and might do so in the nearby future.[2] Intriguingly, it makes for quite entertaining television: One can identify with the woman’s desire to share every day with someone that is completely ‘there’. And, while watching, one might also develop a soft spot for this robot- his everlasting smile kind of gets to you…

Such an almost inescapable urge to project feelings onto an object such as a robot was thoroughly discussed in the expert meeting on robotics developments organized by Maaike Bleeker preceding the public event Performing Robots at Het Huis, 13 October 2017. From our perspective as explorers in ‘robot land’ exactly this urge seems to be a phenomenon that the researchers of the robot expert meeting agree upon as undeniable, and, each handle in their research in different ways. Moreover, the experts gathered in this meeting apply theatre in their research or are interested in exploring further such possibilities. Below you can find the aspects of the discussion that appeared most intriguing to us.

One of the aspects that came up in the discussion was that there seems to be a certain similarity between the illusion of a lively interaction of a human with a robot and the illusionary worlds specific forms of theatre can create. Certain features of a robot seem to let the one interacting with the robot have feelings for ‘him/her’ even though the robot is not a living being as we know it, while specific forms of theatre create illusionary worlds for a spectator to ‘step inside’ even though the spectator might be seated in a chair. The panel members refer to such similarities between projection and illusion repeatedly. For example, theatre comes up as a useful test environment for robotics precisely as it can create a world that feeds the illusion of interaction between the robot and the human. The expertise of theatre on how sound and light can shape a space and thereby the experience of the audience seems to be specifically helpful. Interestingly, the panel seems to agree that it is not necessary to create the robot as human-like as possible but that an engaging interaction is vastly dependent on how the situation is set within the test environment. In relation to the notion of uncanny valley this suggests that it is not necessary to make the robot as human-like as possible to tap into the urge to ascribe an object emotions and intentions.[3] Rather than making the object come to life one can create a world in which the object appears alive. Puppeteer and theatre director Ulrike Quade mentions that thereby staging strategies such as layering can create the illusion of interaction.[4] This seems to resonate with the research of Elizabeth Jochum where exhibition spaces become the test environment to research Human Robot Interaction (HRI) exactly because of the enhanced performativity of the space and the curiosity and openness of the audience. Similar to the TV documentary described above, Jochum creates situations for an audience to observe and to reflect on HRI. Moreover, Jochum applies these situations to measure audience response.

Such projects can be seen as exemplary for a specific function of theatre for robotics, i.e. applying theatre as a space for testing robots. An additional aspect that comes to the fore in the panel discussion is that staging strategies of theatre such as object theatre and puppet theatre can support analyzing and understanding HRI. For example, puppet theatre seems to offer further insights into the workings of illusion in HRI. Object theatre seems to offer a posthuman understanding of HRI where interaction is part of an apparatus, an ecology.[5] In this way, theatre has the potential to provide perspectives beyond the understanding of Human Human Interaction (HHI). Considering the accelerating development of robots for social situations Rob Saunders particularly points out that humans will possibly have to adapt their behaviour to robots. As his collaborator Petra Gemeinbroeck adds, the urge to project feelings on an object should, therefore, be approached critically. She stresses the importance of questioning the mechanisms of illusion/projection because a fundamental part of robotic development exploits such mechanisms for commercial reasons and involves vulnerable test groups such as elderly and children. Gemeinbroeck suggests one way to work with the inescapable urge to project feelings is to make such processes more difficult.

Furthermore, an aspect that shows the potential of the discourse of theatre for robotics seems to be the possibility to define parameters in the development of social robots. For example theatre and performance, studies offer useful insights concerning the reflection on HRI. Pim Haselager points out that in his research various levels of trust of the human in the performance of a robot have been specified.[6] The panel suggests that different notions from performance theory could be helpful to further develop an understanding of how aspects of the robot’s performance support gaining the trust of the human.[7] Another example of a concept to explore further is agency, which is widely applied to describe a perceived effect of HRI. A spectator is said to ascribe agency to the robot when the spectator believes the robot owns a certain freedom in making choices. However, from the perspective of ecology, the relation between the actors defines agency rather than agency being something that someone has.[8]

While such theoretical knowledge applied from the discourse of theatre and performance studies can support reflecting on notions applied in the analysis of robotic experiments, Ruairi Glynn suggests that theatre can also provide strategies which inform the design or conceptual level of robot creation. He points out the possibility of working from the material of the robot rather than solely looking for solutions through computational models. Next to such practical approach of materiality, movement-related subjects such as intentionality and recognition come up as valuable contributions of the practice of theatre. In this sense, theatre seems to be applicable as a body of knowledge in the creation of robots. However, they also mention the limiting factors of framing and working methods necessary to be granted funding. Thereby quantifiable strategies are needed to make studies compatible and reproducible.

All in all, through these aspects that caught our attention theatre, seems to already make useful contributions to robot development and give inspiration to further investigate this developing field. Theatre can be seen to contribute to robotics as a space for testing robots, as a body of knowledge to develop a robot as an actor, and dramaturgical strategies as a way to analyze existing HRI. The panel discussion provided us with insights in the considerations of researchers in the field of robotics and of theatre directors exploring objects and puppets. We are humbled by these experienced researchers and artists and inspired by their openness to share and discuss. Infused by the enthusiasm of this panel we can’t wait to further explore how methods and concepts from theatre and performance studies could be useful for robot development, and, how reflecting on such methods and concepts applied in robot development, in turn, could be enriching for the discourse of theatre and performance.

[1] Commercial website on Pepper, https://www.ald.softbankrobotics.com/en/robots/pepper

[2] Robo Sapienshttps://www.npo.nl/robo-sapiens/19-11-2017/VPWON_1266947

[3] Masahiro Mori, ‘The uncanny valley’, trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki, Norri, IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine (2012 [1970]): 98–100.

[4] Quade’s performance Maniacs includes a real doll, http://www.ulrikequade.nl/voorstelling/maniacs/

[5] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham, Duke University Press, 2007).

[6] R. van den Brule, G. Bijlstra, R. Dotsch, W.F.G. Haselager, & D. Wigboldus, “Warning signals for poor performance improve human-robot interaction,” International Journal of Human-Robot Interaction 5(2), (2016): 69-89, http://humanrobotinteraction.org/journal/index.php/HRI/article/view/271

[7] John Mc Kenzie, Perform, or else (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[8] Barad.


Authors Nadine Grinberg and Swantje Schaeuble were invited to join the expert meeting on robotics organized by Maaike Bleeker, an exchange between robotics development, (object) theatre, dance, and performance studies. The two former MA-students and independent researchers provided the documentation of the event and, in turn, collected insights in ways to apply aspects of theatre, dance and performance to understand and develop Human Robot Interaction.


Participants in the Performing Robots Expert Meeting: Dennis Vermeulen, Roos van Berkel, Emilia Barakova, Pim Hasselaher, Elisabeth Jochum, Ruairi Glynn, Rob Saunders, Petra Gemeinboeck, Rutger Gernandt, Pluck Venema, Robert Linder, Urike Quade, Maaike Bleeker, Nadine Grinberg, Swatnje Schaeuble.


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