Understanding Perceptions of Robots in Interactions

The field of Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) aims to understand how people naturally interact with robots and expect robots to interact with them, so that we can design robots to fit more fluidly and beneficially into human systems. This goal involves understanding how people tend to perceive and judge robots based on different behaviors and characteristics. Scholars have devoted a lot of effort to understanding (perceptions of) robot moral agency, including how people judge morally consequential robot actions and attribute blame to robots for violating moral norms. Comparatively little scholarship has focused on applying the corresponding notion of social agency (and, relatedly, social identity) to robots, despite the importance of this concept in other fields and pervasive use of the terms “social agent” and “social agency” in HRI literature. 

The goal of this project is to design, run, and analyze an experiment with human subjects to probe perceptions of robots as social agents. Last year, motivated by inconsistent, underspecified, or otherwise problematic theories and usages of social agency in the HRI literature, I developed a theory of social agency specifically tailored to HRI research (see https://rbjackson.github.io/paper_pdfs/jackson2021socialAgency.pdf  and note that this is not the representative publication attached to this posting). Now, we can collect experimental data probing this theory via human subjects experimentation. The experiment might involve, for example, varying the level of abstraction from which a person views a robot interactant (i.e., varying how much they know about how the robot works) and then testing their reaction to certain types of robot utterance (particularly utterances that express (dis)approval). There is flexibility here depending on where the design process takes us and where our interests are at the time! 

A parallel research direction is entirely philosophical. This side project involves exploring the implications of applying certain highly controversial principles from procreative ethics to robot production. Some scholars have argued that objections to these principles in human reproduction do not apply to robots, and that these principles should therefore guide robot production. We will argue that applying these principles to robot production is fundamentally at odds with the broader social good, with specific attention to designing gender cues in social robots. A draft of a small portion of this argument exists here: https://rbjackson.github.io/paper_pdfs/jackson2021ppb.pdf


Name of research group, project, or lab
Understanding Perceptions of Robots in Interactions
Why join this research group or lab?

Human-robot interaction (HRI) is an extremely interdisciplinary field that brings together computer science, robotics, social psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and many other fields. It is an extremely flexible, interesting, and rewarding place for a potential aspiring researcher with broad interests to start a research career. I've also found that HRI hosts one of the best research communities I've ever encountered. If you want to learn a little bit about everything, HRI is the place for you. 

As an early career researcher who recently completed my PhD, I can give students my perspective on career paths both in academia and elsewhere. When I started my PhD, I was my advisor's first and only student, which allowed me to experience what it is like to get a new lab up and running with brand new projects. I am excited to bring that valuable experience to students at Mudd! 

In addition to the project described above, my work includes studying verbal noncompliance and clarification interactions with robots, human-robot trust, robot gender presentation, and autonomously generating natural language responses to sexist speech. I'd be happy to discuss these topics with interested students as well! 

Representative publication
Logistics Information:
Project categories
Computer Science
Human-Computer Interaction
Student ranks applicable
Student qualifications

Some experience with stats (e.g., Math 62, 152, 153, or 158). A strong interdisciplinary background with experience in philosophy and/or psychology is highly encouraged! These projects will be light on coding but heavy on thinking, discussing, and reading!

Time commitment
Summer - Full Time
Paid Research
Number of openings
Techniques learned

Human subjects experimentation, an introduction to robot ethics, an introduction to extremely interdisciplinary work in CS. 

Contact Information:
Mentor name
Blake Jackson
Mentor email
Mentor position
Visiting Faculty
Name of project director or principal investigator
Blake Jackson
Email address of project director or principal investigator
2 sp. | 13 appl.
Hours per week
Summer - Full Time
Project categories
Human-Computer Interaction (+2)
Computer ScienceHuman-Computer InteractionRobotics