John Woolham is Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. (856 words)
There’s a saying, apparently, amongst actors: never work with children or animals. For academics, one might add children, animals and robots—if one of the presentations I recently attended was anything to go by—but I’ll come to that.
The conference, known as I-TAG, (Interactive Technologies and Games) was held in Nottingham and organised by colleagues from Nottingham Trent University. I don’t know anything about robotics or computer technology (in fact, anyone who knows me will attest to my cack-handedness at anything even vaguely IT related). I am, though, very interested in exploring how electronic assistive technologies and telecare can help people who need social care to maintain independence and quality of life; and because I recently became Deputy Editor of the Journal of Assistive Technologies (soon to be re-named the Journal of Enabling Technologies) I went along for one day of this two day conference to find out more about ITAG, and to invite anyone doing interesting work to consider publishing with us.
As I’d thought, I may have been the only non-computer scientist or informatics delegate: everyone I spoke to came from a very different background to me. I’d had these vague concerns about having to make small talk with people who were fluent in algorithm, or who spoke English, but, to paraphrase, ‘not as we know it, Jim’. I needn’t have worried.
So, on to the conference itself. The fact that I’m writing a blog about it when I rarely do blogs would suggest there was something worth sharing and that’s exactly the case. As someone who knows very little about the potential of robotics and computer technology to support/augment or replace human activity, the conference was not only interesting; it was certainly relevant to social care.
I’m not going to go into too much detail. Conference proceedings will no doubt be available on-line from their website (the 2016 conference abstracts are already available). The overarching theme of this year’s conference was the impact of interactive technologies and games on education and learning, and on the health and well-being of disabled people. This embraced people with learning disabilities, autism, and dementia in particular. The keynote speaker on the first day of the conference, Professor Fiorella Operto, set the tone, providing a comprehensive assessment of the state of the art in robotics—both the ways in which robots have benefitted humans, but also the new technical, legal, ethical and societal issues these technologies pose, and the need for continual debate and dialogue to overcome digital and generational divides, maintain a distinction between human and artificial intelligence and to use informatics and robotics responsibly. There were presentations from academic collaborators on a major trans-national EU funded project known as EduRob (Educational robotics for people with learning disabilities). Speakers repeatedly demonstrated the potential of computer based or robotic games to support learning amongst children and young people with learning disabilities and autism, for example, where games could be configured to meet the learning requirements both of national curricula and the individual classroom teacher’s learning objectives, and used to support error-free approaches to learning. Research evidence was presented to suggest that robot based learning improved attention, engagement and concentration and delivered enhanced outcomes—reinforcing and rewarding behaviour, stimulating cause and effect by encouraging learners to link behaviour with agency and action, improving co-ordination through spatial reasoning, problem solving and social learning. The challenges were not overlooked: limited experience of robotics in education, the absence of resources to pay for expensive machines, the absence of technical support, the need to train teachers to use robotic technology and the other demands on teacher time, for example.
There were other interesting presentations. One, from Matthew Belmonte, considered whether technology could help people with autism and without speech to communicate, and ways in which technology could work with, rather than against, ‘autistic cognitive styles’ and there were also some interesting exhibitor posters and stands. These referred variously to work in using technology to help reduce re-offending, in stroke rehabilitation, and street harassment of children. I learned a lot in a short space of time, but also came away with a sense of frustration at how far away these useful technologies are from the lives of so many people who could potentially benefit from them, and whether anything could be done about this.
Oh, and I mentioned earlier the risk—to academic presenters at least—of working with robots. Unfortunately, what was intended to be a demonstration of the abilities of two humanoid type robots to the conference did not go quite as planned because (we were told) they had overheated. At one point I swear one of the presenters may have slapped one of them—gently—on its head: you know, the way one used to bang a television set to get a clearer picture? I was unsure if this was a technical procedure, a way of retaining the attention of the audience, or if, instead, it should trigger a referral to a robotic safeguarding team. In the end, the application of electric fans, patience and the even-more-cool-headedness of the EduRob team led subsequently to a partial demonstration—which was impressive.