Are you ready for culturally aware robots?

Introducing the world’s first culturally aware robots

Two academic institutions in the UK – Middlesex University and the University of Bedfordshire – are teaming up with a Japanese artificial intelligence company to develop “the world’s first culturally aware robots.”  Specifically, researchers are looking into how they could help solve the crisis in health care for the elderly.

These personal social robots are known as Pepper Robots, and they can be pre-programmed to suit the person they are helping.  They will communicate through speech and gestures, be able to move around independently, pick up signals that the elderly person is unwell or in pain, and provide companionship.

Prof. Irena Papadopoulis, an expert in transcultural nursing at Middlesex University says:

“We don’t want to give a cultural identity to a robot, but the robot will have to be capable of responding to a variety of cultures.”

Papadopoulis believes the diversity of backgrounds in the UK will be a benefit.  As an example, she says a robot could be taught not to try and cheer up a Greek woman whose husband died months ago because Greek widows are expected to be sad for at least a year.

That last statement does give me pause.  Will the robot only be programmed with stereotypical cultural information, or will it be able to learn the cultural tendencies of each individual.  Do all Greek widows expect to be sad for a year?  Cultural intelligence means being able to adapt to real individuals in real time.  No matter what cultural information I might have used for my pre-programming, my human brain is subtle enough to ascertain if:

  1. the individual I am interacting with fits with my pre-programmed knowledge – and, therefore, I know how to behave appropriately – or…
  2. the individual doesn’t fit and I must listen, observe, and adapt quickly to the real, flesh and blood person in front of me.

I would be happy to have a robot help me with my tasks – especially in my future care home – but given my cultural complexity we might find it hard to get along.  It wouldn’t end well!

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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