Human Futures


What will it mean to be human in the future? Will we live alongside robot companions and genetically edit our children?

A future in which different kinds of humans can flourish together is possible, but so too is one of social and ecological breakdown.

Our research considers not what will be, but how we imagine what could be, considering the future as something co-created between science and society in the here and now.

Improving inclusivity in robotics design

Interest in robots for health and social care is rapidly increasing, but human-robot interaction experiments, which are a key method for assessing usability, tend to take place after prototypes have been built, by which point the design trajectory is very difficult to change. Integrating potential users earlier in the planning stages may help improve outcomes, but there are concerns about how inclusive such processes are in terms of both social demographics and variations in physical/cognitive abilities.

This project — developed by iHuman’s Dr Stevienna de Saille and colleagues from Sheffield Robotics, iHuman, CATCHCIRCLEAMRC and the Management School (all TUoS) and the Centre for Automation and Robotics Research, Sheffield Hallam University — aims to explore ways of improving inclusivity in the design of robots for health and social care. Can far-upstream forms of engaged research be shaped in a way that prioritises both user-defined needs and technical feasibility? Investigating this question requires close collaboration between roboticists, social scientists, humanities scholars and consumer researchers to develop novel, bespoke methodologies which draw from (but are not necessarily trying to replicate) participatory and action research paradigms, where problem definition and potential solutions are co-created with socially and physically diverse participants.

The project initially received £2.4k funding via HEIF to run a short series of developmental workshops, also attended by colleagues from Coventy, de Montfort and Leeds. This is now being built into a more longstanding collaborative project to be launched in 2020.

Robots in a Human Future (RoHum)

Social robots are designed not only to fulfil social roles (carer, teacher, friend, sexual partner, etc), but to elicit a social response from the humans with which they engage. Different from mere machines, these are increasingly programmed with learning algorithms which allow greater verisimilitude of interaction with both the human and the surrounding environment, and an adaptive response which is designed to promote acceptability. Thus, the effort to develop them brings up questions not only about the ways in which they might change our societies and our concepts of sociality, but also how different people and societies envision and enable their development. This project forms a broad umbrella for research into questions about sociality, ubiquity and purpose in a future where humans may be living, working and loving amongst non-biological social agents.

Imagining Robotic Care

Imagining Robotic Care was a proof-of-concept pilot study using Lego Serious Play as a focus group methodology to explore the varying socio-technical imaginaries different stakeholders and publics might have about the use of robots in care contexts. We are now in the process of scaling this up to a fully grounded study, with the aim of providing a robust qualitative evidence base to support the quantitative, generally survey, research which is normally done by Human-Robot Interaction Studies.

The Fourth Quadrant Research Network for Responsible Stagnation (4QRN)

4QRN is an ongoing international network of scholars from science and technology studies, political science, innovation studies and economics, founded by iHuman’s Stevienna de Saille and Fabien Medvecky (University of Otago) to further explore the ideas broached in their seminal paper, ‘Innovation for a Steady State: A case for responsible stagnation’ (here, OA). It holds monthly virtual seminars on a broad range of topics aimed at cross-disciplinary knowledge generation and developing a-growth approaches to responsible innovation.

The network has received seed funding from the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) to support a series of face-to-workshops to develop a book proposal based on the discussions of the virtual seminars. Titled ‘Responsibility Beyond Growth’, the book will be published by Bristol University Press in July 2020, and is collectively authored by Stevienna de Saille, Fabien Medvecky, Michiel van Oudheusden, Kevin Albertson, Effie Amanatidou, Timothy Birabi and Mario Pansera, with additional contributions by Keren Naa Abeka Arthur, George Gritzas, Andrea Jimenez and Poonam Pandey.

Fostering cultures of open qualitative research

Normative scientific notions of reproducibility and replicability are well established as mainstays for assessing and/or evaluating research. As a result, cultures of making quantitative datasets openly available, and for making the analytical processes and methods used transparent have become standard expectations for good research. On the other hand, qualitative research, often steeped in interpretivism, has seen far less importance placed on reproducibility. Methods such as ethnographic immersion are seen to negate the process. Addressing this, the project draws on a survey, interviews, and an expert stakeholder workshop between January and July 2023 to examine how a culture of open qualitative research might be fostered, reporting on the resources needed to support it. As sch, it covers perceptions and existing practices of open access academic research. Rather than focussing only on technical and processual aspects, it will cover epistemic discussion too i.e., what it might mean to make interpretivist inquiry open at various stages. See the project webspage here:

Robot reading books

Our work

How we understand being ‘human’ differs between disciplines and has changed radically over time. We are living in an age marked by rapid growth in knowledge about the human body and brain, and new technologies with the potential to change them.

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