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HUMAN+ Research Profile: Dr. Pat Treusch, Robots and a New Concept of Emotions

What will robots look like in the future? Should we imagine them as fear-inducing threats like the Terminator, or cute and likeable service providers like Wall-E? According to Dr. Pat Treusch, it’s time to dismantle this kind of binary thinking. In her HUMAN+ fellowship she employs feminist lenses to explore the emotional capacities of robotics in a way that brings the arts and engineering, humanities and social sciences, together, enabling us to re-conceptualise the future of robot-human relations.

Treusch believes that we need to re-examine our relationships with robots in the Global North. We often hear that they are going to do jobs better than humans, such as computer programmes that are given human traits. This leads to reductive thinking, where robots are viewed as either threats or tools. She believes that “this is not looking into the reality of what kind of robots exist. What do robotic engineers strive for, what are the goals of robotics? Socially useful machines might be very different to human-like robots.” Treusch wants to critically revise debates and engineering practices in order to actively shape the kinds of robots that will exist in this world.

This is something she does through feminist analyses. Employing critical thinking strategies that look at inclusion and social justice, she has developed a tool box to carry out her research. This enables her to bring questions to engineering from the schools of social science and humanities, which in turn permits her to explore the concepts of emotion in robotics in exploratory ways. There is huge potential, she argues, “to develop a new concept of emotions that does justice to the idea of cognition and affective capacities, and the ideas we find in the humanities.” The idea of a robot being able to show human-like emotions is something that we should reject. Instead, we should experiment to discover new ways of relating between humans and robots.

Here we see where Treusch’s research aligns with the goals of HUMAN+, as her work deconstructs myths around feminist practices to show how critical theories can create connections between the arts and sciences. Building upon the work of other feminist science and technology scholars she has previously looked at “care as an ethics:” using care as a tool to imagine robotic futures. Now she is exploring it through the lens of love, to look at the relationship between users and robots, people working in robotics and in public debates in robotics. Treusch draws on black feminist thought, particularly the theorists bell hooks and Jennifer C. Nash, which formulates love as a transformative ethical tool for freedom.

This can help re-conceptualise how we view robot-human relations. For example, we often hear about service and care robots. But who develops these robots, and what perspectives do they have? Do they have the views of those who require care in mind? Are these views diverse enough? Discussing her previous work on robotic knitting, she notes, “I worked with the engineers who were making the controls for a robot arm, and also they improved the algorithm through my experimentation with the knitting.” Here we see real and sustained progress being made through interdisciplinary collaboration. Treusch notes that – as she frames them – these material methods come from the social sciences and humanities, and can be brought together by theorising in the Digital Humanities.

Like Treusch’s HUMAN+ colleagues, her career has been one of interdisciplinarity across international lines. She holds a binational PhD from TU Berlin and Linköping University in Sweden. This gave her a strong grounding in various fields as she benefited from working with four different supervisors across the disciplines, an experience she highly recommends. Her time in Dublin will continue this career trajectory: from October on, she will also be involved in the interdisciplinary MOZART project. This European Horizon 2020-funded project will bring together roboticists from three different countries with humanities and social science researchers based at TCD. As leader of the Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts work package, she will hire a postdoc to work on some very explorative work on the project’s robotic innovation process.

Discussing her research team, it is interesting to see that Treusch had made connections with both supervisors prior to commencing the programme. She first met her humanities supervisor, Dr Jennifer Edmond from the Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities, at a funding event in 2017: this led to further communication and collaboration in subsequent years. Dr Edmond also introduced her to Dr Conor McGinn from the Department of Mechanical, Manufacturing & Biomedical Engineering, who became her science supervisor. The strength of their collaboration is clear from Dr Edmond’s own words:

Treusch believes it is useful to have supervisors in mind before you start your programme, which means any opportunity to reach out and establish a working relationship can end up being a very valuable one.

Treusch has always worked in innovative fields. After her work in Germany on robotic knitting, HUMAN+ was an ideal place to further develop her research profile. She views the fellowship as a step towards establishing a “different type of research culture” where national funders will see how important it is to bring together teams with different expertises focusing on unconventional work. She also hopes this research culture will come to value failure, particularly when making connections between research fields. When you start talking to people from different disciplines, the same word might have a different meaning. In this way, it’s possible that interdisciplinary communication may fail at first, but can also be a productive way of making new discoveries.

Here she stresses the importance of mutual respect between the fields: “I’m an expert in some fields but not others, and of course I need to become an expert in certain parts of other fields so there’s a dialogue possible. It’s not about saying arts has the right answer or that sciences has an easy fix, but about working together.” HUMAN+ was unique in Europe, providing Treusch with a space to bring critical theory into computer science and engineering. Often, the social sciences are viewed as a discipline to be used in conjunction with other fields, but in HUMAN+ there is an awareness that the humanities are useful in themselves! “It’s much better to say that critical theory has so much to offer. It might be good that it’s hard to grasp, that it’s ‘bumpy,’ because there is not always an easy technical solution to social challenges possible. We don’t need more datafication of the world, because we can’t solve current problems simply through quantification or algorithimsation.”

Certainly, Treusch has viewed her first year in HUMAN+ as one in which exploration and indeed risk has been very worthwhile. It’s a place that values the extra work that collaboration entails, and which is often ignored in traditional academia. Her work, ultimately, is about opening up to new ideas: not about dictating what robots should look like. Instead, she wants to know “what it feels like to collaborate with a robot. There is no manual. And if you have a certain activity you want to work on with a robot, how does that feel? What challenges are there?” This clearly can only be tackled through such innovative, explorative research contexts as HUMAN+.

- Article written by Dr Sarah Cullen


Human+ is a five-year international, inter- and transdisciplinary fellowship programme that will conduct ground breaking research that addresses human centric approaches to technology development. Supported by the prestigious European Commission (EC) Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Action, Human+ is led by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and ADAPT, the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Digital Content Innovation at Trinity College Dublin. The programme is further supported by unique relationships with HUMAN+ Enterprise Partners who co-fund the fellowships and provide a unique perspective.

The HUMAN+ project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 945447.