Transmission in Motion


“What can movement tell us?” – Irene Alcubilla Troughton

In the lecture given by Emilia Barakova and Roos van Berkel about the importance of expressive movement in social robotics and, consequently, in human-robot interactions, two notions caught my attention from the beginning: anthropomorphic and humane robots. In an extremely interesting distinction between them, the two scholars tried to understand how a robot can or cannot be engaging regardless of their human-like features. Thus, they concluded, if the robot follows certain emotional and social cues it might be considered humane without an anthropomorphic surface. However, how can we determine what it is to be “humane”?

By analysing the impact of robots through a matrix where the main parameters where “agency” and “experience”, Barakova and van Berkel tried to comprehend this interaction through the concepts of “cognition” and “emotion”, respectively. This division and posterior association seemed to me, at first, to be quite problematic. Cognition, the second label give to the parameter, was equated with thought and therefore, as Katherine Hayles would argue, with only a highly functioning part of the cognitive process: that of consciousness. Understanding this as the basis of agency, as scholar such as Judith Butler has shown, can exclude a great number of other experiences and subjectivities, also leaving aside the social, political and performative aspects of such a term.

Independently of this, however, the focus on expressive movement as an emotional cue opens up fruitful paths in human-robot interactions. As their learning experiments with children show when certain movements are understood as bearers of social significance the engagement with the robot and their interactions are far greater than when such a movement is not identified as a social cue. As movement is not so easily hidden or controlled as for example facial expressions, it proves to be a good indicator of how people express emotion: acceleration or intensity change when the same movement is performed under different emotional states, for example.

Therefore, two levels of engagement can be reached when focusing on movement. Firstly, if those expressions are conceptualised as social cues (as significant for our communication) the interaction will be greater. Secondly, if those movements are also considered to bear a certain emotion (if they function as emotional cues), the engagement will reach an even higher level. The importance of expressive movement as a point of connection between human and robots is noticeable inasmuch it overcomes the main problems of creating anthropomorphic robots: their costs and the expectations in terms of higher cognitive functions that come with their appearance. Having non-anthropomorphic but humane robots (understood as capable of emotional expression in a meaningful social interaction) opens an interesting field for exploration, especially for people that might have troubles with standard communication, such as children or people with dementia. Maybe those people who are not usually considered as “whole subjects” – in the sense of autonomous agents –  due to their premature condition or “deteriorated” mental state, could teach us other ways of communicating that might be even more productive, more creative, more useful than traditional modes of it. Maybe, ultimately, through this line of research, we could all have access to new knowledge about our empathy, our affection, our needs, discovering other ways of living in community.

Works cited

  • Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.
  • Hayles, Katherine. 2014. “Cognition Everywhere: The Rise of the Cognitive Nonconscious and the Costs of Consciousness”. New Literary History 45, no. 2 (Spring): 199-220.