Developing a Distinct “Robot Culture”

Visiting Professor for Gender Studies Selma Šabanovic held public lectures at Bielefeld University

Depending on their cultural background, people react differently to a robot’s appearance. What this is implies for robot design was the topic of a lecture given by Social Informatics researcher Selma Šabanović, Ph.D., at Bielefeld University’s Center of Excellence Cognitive Interactive Technology (CITEC) on 14 July. In her talk, Dr. Šabanović presented her approach to designing robots whose functions can be understood independently of the user’s cultural background. Šabanović was invited by the CITEC Center of Excellence and is currently a Visiting Professor for Gender Studies at Bielefeld University. In another lecture, she examined the issue of how social robots can intensify gender stereotypes depending on whether they look “female” or “male.” This lecture was held on 16 July at Bielefeld University. Both lectures were open to the public.

Selma Šabanović - together with the robot head Flobi - has served as Visiting Professor for Gender Studies at Bielefeld University. Foto: CITEC Users of household robots sometimes think of their electronic helpers as fellow human beings. The kinds of expectations and requests people make of ‘female’ robots, for instance, are similar to those they would make of female humans. Using research from the United States, South Korea, and Turkey, Selma Šabanović shows how these perceptions depend on the user’s cultural values and the social standing. At the same time, however, new studies have also shown that people experience robots as culturally distinct phenomena: to a certain extent, robots form their own culture. In her lecture on 14 July, Šabanović outlined how better understanding this can help to free human-machine interaction from the user’s particular cultural influences. The English-language lecture was titled “Designing Robot Cultures: Steps toward a culturally robust robotics.”

In another lecture on 16 July titled “Robot Girls and Boys? Constructing gender in social robotics,” Dr. Šabanović addressed the effect of gender perceptions on the design of social robots. One approach in robotics is to design electronic assistants in such a way that their appearance indicates how they should be used. A robot dressed in blue overalls, for example, would signify that he is manually skilled; a robot with short hair and broad shoulders would indicate that he is ‘male’ and has mastered the types of skills typically connected to the idea of masculinity. Dr. Šabanović explains: “the development of robots for everyday usage often makes use of gender stereotypes. This poses the problem of whether robotics design should reproduce such stereotypes or should find ways to question and challenge them.”

Since mid June 2014, Dr. Selma Šabanović of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, USA, has served as Visiting Professor for Gender Studies at Bielefeld University. At the CITEC Center of Excellence, she has given lectures and seminars on topics relating to gender and cultural research in the field of robotics. The Visiting Professorship for Gender Studies was established as a cross-faculty ‘travelling professorship’. With this initiative, Bielefeld University aims to strengthen gender-specific content in research and teaching in collaboration with different faculties. The initiative also seeks to transfer and embed knowledge gained through gender research into the individual disciplines. Furthermore, it aims to raise the profile of women in research and teaching. The first visiting gender studies professor was brought to Bielefeld University in 2010. The visiting professorship is funded by both Bielefeld University (50%) and the host faculty or academic department (50%).

Dr.-Ing. Emine Bilek, Bielefeld University
Center of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC)
Telephone: 0521 106-12037