Introducing People to Research in Robotics through an Extended Peer Community in Southern Switzerland
The diffusion of digital devices and of the internet brought up deep changes in our society and globally. Technology, in all its branches, has evolved to a broad domain where society, research and market production coexist and blend. As a consequence, the life of our citizens is growing more and more digital; rather sophisticated technology is actually part of everyday life: in personal handheld devices, smart TV sets, supermarket counters, credit cards systems, online booking websites, etc. As the federal report on Digital Education states (Bericht über die zentralen Rahmenbedingungenfür die digitale Wirtschaft 2017), active citizenship today cannot be imagined without basic digital and media literacy. On the other hand, people are scared by the fast and continuous innovation in technology. The public perception of robotics and autonomous systems in the European Union has been recently investigated (Directorate-General for Networks, Content and Technology, 2015). Although the majority of the citizens (approximately 2/3 of the respondents) report a very or fairly positive image of robots, this percentage is decreasing (64% in 2015 against 70% in 2012).Furthermore, the study reports several results that can be interpreted as indicators of the lack of confidence in robots. For example, "Nine in ten respondents (89%) think that robots are a form of technology that require careful management and seven out of ten (70%) people believe that robots steal people’s jobs", "Over a third of respondents (36%) think that their current job could be done at least partially by a robot in the future", only "Around four out of ten (41%) would be comfortable using a robot in school as a means for education, while 36% would be uncomfortable" and "a majority of people would feel uncomfortable with the ideas of having a robot provide services and companionship to elderly or infirm people (51%), and having a medical operation performed on them by a robot(55%)" (Directorate-General for Networks, Content and Technology, 2015). We argue that, in order to invert the trend and to increase real confidence toward robots in the public, each effort to introduce public to research in robotics and to the methods of scientific inquiry can be an important contribution.
This is exactly what this AGORA project aims at. Our objective is to introduce a large group of persons, both adults and children, to the field of research in robotics and to the methods of scientific inquiry, through a direct and continuing contact with researchers in robotics and an active personal involvement. The basic idea of this project is to establish an extended peer community (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993) consisting of a large group of primary and lower secondary school pupils, parents, teachers, teacher educators, policy makers and researchers in robotics, in order to face a real complex robotic problem in a familiar context, i.e. the introduction of educational robotics into compulsory school in Southern Switzerland. Thanks to the particular, strongly participative, form of public engagement adopted in the project and the familiar context, the non-scientific members of the community will be fostered to reflect together with researchers about research in robotics and, at the same time, educated to an active and conscious participation to the scientific and technological debate. The project is proposed by two institutions with a strong background and a long history of research in robotics: the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence (IDSIA), a joint institute of the University of Southern Switzerland (USI) and of the University of applied sciences of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI), and the Laboratoire de Systèmes Robotiques (LSRO) of the Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne(EPFL). In this particular project, the researchers in Robotics of the two institutions will be supported by teacher educators and communication experts of the Department of Education and Learning (DFA) of the University of Applied Sciences of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI). The SUPSI-DFA has a wide experience in the organization of events for the public (see for example the ongoing AGORA project Communicating Mathematics Education) and is active in research projects and in initial and continuing teacher education on educational robotics.