Friday Faves is our weekly blog series highlighting a few select pieces from the REG team’s reading lists. You can catch up on past Friday Faves on the archive

It’s time to talk about robot gender stereotypes

Anne says: The robots are back again. This week, my selected article introduces a topic that at face value is easy to accept. However, with deeper consideration, it raises a topic that will have far-reaching impacts into our future with robots as co-workers and representation of ourselves. Right in the opening sentence, the article outlines the profound challenge:

“Robots are the most powerful blank slate humans have ever created.”

In particular, the article is referring to the humanoid robots – not the vacuum cleaner thing scooting around under your feet – and immediately, the issue of gender becomes critical. There are already studies that indicate people think differently about masculine shaped robots doing heavy duty tasks versus the more feminine voiced robots that we’re familiar with as virtual assistants. And of course, as the article identifies, the robot makers can easily replicate the stereotyped gender and behaviours to make their products more saleable.

Then – what if we, as the people interacting with the humanoid robots, respond to their body shape and size? Another study cited highlights that if a large, broad-shouldered robot is working in a hospital, we may be hesitant to interact with it – it looks too big and threatening versus gentle and caring.

The challenge for designers can be de-coupling the physicality of the body with strength by replacing the perception of size with machines that can achieve the task.

But – we, people, have this habit of anthropomorphising objects (attributing human characteristics). We frequently gender-relate our objects. We’ll refer to items as “he” or “she” and talk about them, even naming them, in a gendered manner. Robot-makers will be challenged by our expectations of what gender a robot doing these tasks “should be” and our desire to create a personality for them.

What a fascinating time to be designing robots!! But what long-term impact will this have on society and how we represent our robot coworkers? The last sentence of the first paragraph says it all:

“What we make of the machine reflects what we are.”


Robot researchers look to lizard tails to pave way for search-and-rescue, off-road abilities

Joel says: In a blog post just over a year ago I wrote about how aerospace engineers at RMIT were studying the take-off techniques of mosquito’s to inspire the design of stealth defence drones.

Now a couple of Queensland based researchers believe that understanding how lizards use their tails could hold the key to building off-road robots that could be used for search and rescue, in agriculture, or perhaps even space missions.

Dr Christofer Clemente from the University of the Sunshine Coast and Nicholas Wu from the University of Queensland recently had some of their findings published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Their research looked at how lizards use their tails to go from four to two legs while running.

Dr Clemente said that understanding would enable them to design a ‘tailed robot’ which could operate on four wheels but could also raise onto its rear wheels with the help of a tail.

“A lot of wheeled robots aren’t very manoeuvrable. It’s one of the few advantages that legged robots have, They can get over obstacles easily but aren’t very efficient so if we could get a wheeled robot and allow it to negotiate obstacles then what we’ve made is a compromise between the two.”

Dr Clemente and Mr Wu studied eight species of lizards in nature and in the lab, recording the physics and mechanics of how they moved, using photography and video to capture movement for study. From that work, they’ve built a four-wheeled robot with a tail. It’s still in the early experimental stages but Dr Clemente said the sky was the limit for a wheeled robot able to successfully negotiate obstacles. Their goal is to send it to Mars but realise that is a bit far-fetched right now.

What other animals do you think could inspire cutting edge pieces of technology? And what do you think about the real world applications of these robots? Sure they prevent humans from being on the front line in a disaster but would you trust that they can do the job as thoroughly as a human could? I’d love to hear your opinions.


Why Doctors Hate their Computers

Helen says: This article by Atul Gwande looks into why many medical practitioners have negative relationships with their workplace technology and the human impact of this. Systems intended to create efficiencies instead become inhibitors to getting their job done, and in many ways preventing practitioners from really connecting with their patient.

Research is showing increasing burnout rates in doctors who are turning part-time or leaving the industry altogether. Burnout according to psychologist Christina Maslach is “a combination of three distinct feelings: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (a cynical, instrumental attitude toward others), and a sense of personal ineffectiveness.” Anthropologist Matt Spencer describes the human response to technology in the following way, “people initially embraced new programs and new capabilities with joy, then came to depend on them, then found themselves subject to a system that controlled their lives.”

The need for technology to aid medical practitioners is not disputed but the author summarises:

“the volume of knowledge and capability increases faster than any individual can manage—and faster than our technologies can make manageable for us. We ultimately need systems that make the right care simpler for both patients and professionals, not more complicated. And they must do so in ways that strengthen our human connections, instead of weakening them.”

How do you feel about your workplace technology? Does it help or hinder your work?


The case against fighting to stay focused at work

Jakkii says: I’m sure most of us – especially those in open plan offices – can relate: the ongoing battle for focus in the workplace. It’s often a key element of workplace frustration, anecdotally cited as a reason for productivity issues, and at least somewhat a driver behind the activity-based working philosophy. We all need to focus to get stuff done – right? Well, maybe – but maybe we’re also focusing too much on focus.

Dr. Srini Pillay, author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlocking the Power of the Unfocused Mind, says while we all need a little time to focus to complete tasks, we tend to put our heads down too much. “Too much focus can actually hurt us,” he says.

Why would focus have the opposite effect of our intent?

  • Focus drains your energy
  • Focus means you stop noticing other things
  • Focus hinders your creativity

Makes sense when you think about it, right? Of course, the article offers some more detail for each, before going on to provide three ways to take advantage of “an unfocused brain”.

  • Constructively daydream
  • Find the right distractions
  • Recognise unconscious distractions

Food for thought (or perhaps a constructive daydream). What do you think – can you relate to the potential perils of too much focus? How might we encourage our teams and employees to de-focus on focus, and take advantage of our “unfocused brain”?


This week in social media

Sydney Business Insights – The Future This Week Podcast

This week: work week wishes, fax-free futures, and AI art. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.

The stories this week:

The four-day week could work 

Getting rid of fax machines

Other stories we bring up:

New Zealand four day work week trials

Where the five day work week came from

Rory Sutherland’s Ted talk – Life lessons from an ad man

RIP the fax: fax-free future for Australian healthcare

Our previous discussion on fax machines


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