10 OKTOBER 2017
The first group, forming the majority of the
audience, is in the focus of the event, as the inclusion of robotics are already transforming
the fields of patient care and special education. Some of these participants already have
experience with robots, yet, I sense an air of apprehension as we wait for the program to
To ease the audience into the subject, and to create a cheerful atmosphere, the friendly
visitor-robot of Van Abbemuseum rolls in. The robot was designed to help people who are
unable to visit the museum to experience it just like any other visitor. By controlling the
robot they can move around in the physical space of the exhibition and interact with the
visitors present there and then, as well as access some additional features, such as zooming
in on artworks to view details.

AGENCY: The biggest advantage of robots over human caregivers
The key concept here, and generally in the field of assistive robotics, is giving agency: aiming
at providing the highest possible autonomy and level of control to the user, where
traditional care or technology might be more limiting. The main difference is, before the
emergence of these robots, people with disabilities often relied on a human caregiver, which
created a feeling of dependence or helplessness on the side of the patient, but when the
caregiver is replaced by a machine, and this machine is fully operated by the patient, these
feelings are eliminated by a restored sense of agency.
After the short intro, the visitor-robot navigates itself out of the room and Ine Gevers,
founder and director of the Robot Love Embassy takes the stage. She shows us slides of
different assistive robots, some recognized by a few audience members, such as Paro, the
cuddly seal, designed to comfort its users, or a Telenoid that acts as a tool for upgrading
tele-communication into a physical experience.

CONTROVERSY: Benign illusion or deceit of patients
The Telenoid is the first one to spark some controversy among the audience. Some audience
members argue that it is a form of deceit, misleading the patients (often struggling with
dementia) to believe they are actually, physically interacting with their loved ones, instead of
the robot. Someone advocates for the importance of choice, the elderly should be given the
decision whether or not they wish to engage in such interaction. Someone else, however,
argues that even this mediated form of interaction is more or better than no interaction at
all, or a solely virtual interaction, such as a video-call. The illusion of physical contact with
their loved ones can help the patients feel better.

CONCERNS: Technological dependence, hackability, humanization
As Ine moves on to thought-provoking questions to stimulate the brainstorming, the
audience seems to become slightly reserved and critical towards the new technology. Even
developments generally perceived as positive, such as robotic prosthetics are scrutinized,
and questions on technological dependence and its consequences (What happens if the
technology breaks down or is not available?) are raised, as well as concerns about
Can dependence be regarded as a form of relationship between human and robot? – One
audience member asks. Most disagree. This leads the audience into considering how the
humanization of robots occurs, and how we as humans tend to project emotions onto
inanimate objects – it is possible for humans to feel empathy towards inanimate objects or
fictional characters, but is it possible for robots to conceive empathy?
To end the program, the moderators call us to participate in a quick audience survey. We are
asked to answer yes-and- no questions using the cards distributed in the beginning of the
program, depicting a green robot for “yes” (agree) red robot for “no” (disagree). Though the
answers are not recorded, I get the impression that the audience remained generally
optimistic about robotics, thus giving a green light for robots to enter our lives, and red
‘robots’ are raised more to respond questions about how, where, and to what extent we
should allow robots to do so.

Image by Niek Tijsse Klasen

Praat met PIP!