Visiting the “Can robots care?” exhibition: report from the launch

Beata Gubacsi reflects on the “Can robots care?” exhibition launch, the first big event of the Imagining Posthuman Care project, bringing together medicine, technology, and popular culture through posthumanism, running until 16th October 2022.

“Can robots care?” exhibition in the Thackray Museum of Medicine (photo by Beata Gubacsi)

The “Can robots care?” interactive exhibition opened on the 4th November 2021 at the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds as part of the AHRC funded Imagining Posthuman Care project, led by Amelia DeFalco and supported by Maya Caspari, Lizzie Wright and Ellen Lloyd. The project itself is highly topical as we assess the pandemic and its aftermath, a global event that has significantly affected the ways we access care, and consequently how we understand care and relate to carers themselves. These discussions often draw attention to the entanglements of environmental breakdown and socio-economic inequalities – the exploitation of human and non-human labour and resources, the devaluation and invisibility of labour. Posthumanism as an inherently future-oriented and interdisciplinary critical framework, informed by technology, ecology, feminism, decolonial and disability studies, has been at the forefront of these conversations. In other words, the Imagining Posthuman Care project “[draws] on recent critical ‘turns’ toward animality, vulnerability, materiality and the posthuman, [and] asks: how might the philosophy of care be reimagined in dialogue with posthumanism? How can the shared attention to embodiment, contingency and interdependence in posthumanism, new materialism, and philosophy of care be cultivated in ways that expand and enrich both perspectives?” (Quoted form the Imagining Posthuman Care project website)

Posthumanism itself has always been entangled with the techno-cultural imagery of the robot, android and cyborg, and the ways popular culture imagined them, their emergence, uses, our reaction to and relationship with them, since they ask questions about ourselves and how we relate to the non-human. The project itself, and one of its key events, the “Can robots care?” exhibition (created by Amelia DeFalco, Maya Caspari, Lizzie Wright and Ellen Loyd) provide insight into the complexity of these problems, and help us understand our limitations imagining the future of care, and the challenges we face now. Or in other words: “It tells the story of how care robots have been imagined, designed and built through history and into the present. Reflecting on the potential uses, benefits and risks of care robots, it invites visitors to consider what care is and who can give it.” (Quoted from the Imaging Posthuman Care project website)

The exhibition launched on a Thursday evening, welcoming the guests with drinks and robot shaped cookies, and a few words from Nat Edwards (CEO of the Thackray Museum of Medicine) and Amelia DeFalco (PI) outlining the exhibition and the wider Imagining Posthuman Care project, including some of the upcoming events. These brief opening speeches were interrupted by two very special guests, a pair of a rabbit-or-dog-like robots (MiRo models), who, reacting to the speakers’ voice and movement, dutifully zoomed across the exhibition space to make sure everyone was having a good time. Sufficiently engaged and entertained already, we moved over to the Museum’s lecture room to listen to Tony Prescott’s (Director of Sheffield Robotics) talk on the difficulties and possibilities in designing robots to be used in the healthcare environment. Prescott began his talk with distinguishing between different meanings of care in the English language, suggesting that robots can become capable of assisting with physical care, and maybe in the distant future they might be tasked with emotional care as well. Prescott provided a brilliant overview of some of the advances, trials and errors in current robotics research by juxtaposing existing models with those familiar from science fiction – from Star Wars’ BB8 to the Terminator series. On the one hand, this is great to illustrate the synergy between “real life” science and science fiction, the way they inspire and help each other to develop new ideas and solutions. On the other hand, it shows how useful science fiction is in showing and shaping how we feel, conceptualising and interacting with emerging technology, and what we expect from it.

MiRo at the “Can robots care?” exhibition launch in the Thackray Museum of Medicine (Photo by Beata Gubacsi)

Explaining what robots are capable of now, Prescott moved on to discuss one of the most controversial ideas in robotics, whether robots have the ability to act as companions and provide social and emotional support or even friendships, drawing parallels with pets, who are already widely and historically used in animal assisted therapies. With this, Prescott introduced the MiRo project – the zoomorphic robots the guests most definitely noticed during the opening talks. MiRo vaguely resembles popular pets at home but appears to be more cartoonish, with almost comically round features, and long, soft rubber “ears”. MiRo is “controlled by a simplified model of the animal brain” and therefore “thinks” like an animal. It reacts to movement and voice; thus, it turns to and looks at the person who approaches or talks to it, and keeps eye contact with its beady camera “eyes”. MiRo’s interactions also include expressing simple, basic emotions with the help of green and red lights (to indicate happiness or sadness) shining through its hard plastic body. Prescott explained that MiRo robots are tested to examine whether they can help reducing the anxiety children and families face waiting for hospital procedures. Considering initial positive responses, the hope is to work out procedures for wider use and trials.

The Q&A session was just as exciting; the audience was eager to learn more about the practicalities behind design choices (decisions to include fur, manufacturing and user cost) or to discuss ethical concerns surrounding this new technology, including the problems with transparency (making the robots visibly robotic rather than “disguising” them as real animals, making cameras visible so users know when they are being watched). The guests had the opportunity to continue these conversations, explore the exhibition itself, and perhaps most excitingly interact with different robots: like MiRo and Pepper among others. Meeting and interacting with Pepper was a very different experience. For one, Pepper is anthropomorphic – the robot has legs, arms and a recognisably human facial feature. Pepper can also speak and converse (with some help), as well as mimicking human gestures, including playing the violin, which Pepper showed off multiple times during the night to everyone’s sincere amusement.

Toy robots on display (photo by Beata Gubacsi)

Upon revisiting the Thackray Museum of Medicine a few months later, I have noticed that “Can robots care?” is situated at the junction of other areas that are dedicated to the development of medical equipment and prosthetics (including an “iron lung” on display), “Healthcare Heroes”, and finally “Responding to Crisis”. This spatial arrangement itself highlights the conjunction of topics, conversation and issues surrounding the idea of designing and using care robots, which made me appreciate the uniqueness of the venue itself even more. The display itself includes a colourful representation of robots known from popular culture, displayed “real” robots, and various interactive posters explaining the history, philosophy and pragmatics of medical and assistive robots. In addition, the exhibition has a comfortable and well-equipped play area where visitors can take a look at toy robots and – regardless of their age – experiment with designing robots, medical equipment, or anything they wish, from building blocks. The play area re-introduces a bit of fun and playfulness into medicine and healthcare, which often appear overly serious, and reminds the visitors that we often meet robots as well as illness in childhood, through play, and as adult we might notice how much wellness and wellbeing activities are downright gamified.

Fortunately, the Can robots care? exhibition has been extended, and it invites visitors until 16th October 2022. For more information on the exhibition, similar, upcoming events, and additional resources, it is well worth visiting the Imagining Posthuman Care website. You can also read our blog post, Anna McFarlane’s conference report on the “Futures of Care Symposium”, to learn more about robots in healthcare. I can wholeheartedly recommend exploring the other exhibitions of the Thackray Museum of Medicine since they provide invaluable context and perspective for the Can robots care? collection itself. Juxtaposed this way, they truly invite the visitors for a time travel from disease ridden Victorian streets to the science fictional present which is undoubtedly taking daring, exciting steps into the future, which arguably cannot be imagined without robots now.

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