Robotics has a diversity problem. Will eliminating solely technology-oriented approaches lead to a solution?

Haru the Social Robot, shown here in storytelling mode, exists to “create meaningful connections with people.” Credit: Simon von Wolfenstein

If you’ve ever wondered what the lack of diversity in robotics looks like, just do a Google image search for “humanoid robot” and see the simulated skin color of the thousands of robots filling your screen. (Hint: it’s white.)

The images are a metaphor for an industry still struggling to attract and value diverse talent: in 2021, women made up just 15% of people in skilled STEM occupations in Australia, and adults from low socioeconomic backgrounds are also underrepresented.

These challenges are not new, but they are becoming even more pressing with the rise of social robotics, a discipline that produces robots designed to interact with humans.

In the not too distant future, robots could train employees, teach students, or host a reception, but without diverse creators, can they really reflect the lived experience of people from all corners of society?

“Robotics has previously been very limited in its application to manufacturing, but as it becomes more widespread, we will have robots that will work with all kinds of people,” says Dr. Marc Carmichael, a researcher at the UTS Robotics Institute who specializes in the design of collaborative robots.

“We have to take diversity into account, otherwise we will end up with solutions that might work for some people but not for others.”

Revolutionizing the value system of robotics

Universities have been dealing with diversity in STEM for years. At UTS, initiatives like the Wanago and Women in Engineering and IT programs have been designed to address unequal access to STEM subjects, degrees, and careers.

These are important steps toward inclusion, but according to UTS professor Deborah Szapiro, an award-winning animator and social robotics expert in the College of Arts and Social Sciences, more needs to be done.

Szapiro advocates for a professional value system that prefers human, environmental and social values ​​to productivity and efficiency. That means ending technology-only approaches and drawing on a diversity of skill sets and life experiences from other professional disciplines.

“In order to design innovative and autonomous systems with the goal of an equitable and inclusive society, we must change the value system in which we are designing so that productivity and efficiency are much lower on the list,” says Szapiro.

“That means we need interdisciplinary teams of creative professionals, social scientists, psychologists, health professionals, environmentalists and lawyers, among others, along with engineers and computer scientists.”

Breaking disciplinary barriers

Integrating non-STEM expertise into the world of robotics is central to Szapiro’s current research. For the past four years, he has been part of an interdisciplinary collaboration with the Honda Research Institute—Japan (HRI-JP) to incorporate design and animation principles and socially responsible practices into the development of social robots.

Szapiro is developing the non-verbal communication skills and socially impactful creative content of Haru the Social Robot, which exists “to create meaningful connections with people.” To date, Szapiro has worked collaboratively with academics, artists, and engineers to improve the design of Haru’s eye and create a library of icons, called robomojis, to better facilitate communication between humans and robots.

Up next is an ambitious project called The Talking Room in which Haru will facilitate sessions with students from around the world to support inclusive practice and acceptance of diversity.

“The UTS-HRI-JP partnership points to the strength of collaborations bridging the humanities, arts, and social sciences, known as HASS, with STEM in technology development,” says Szapiro.

From the laboratory to the classroom

Szapiro is passionate about integrating this approach into his teaching practice at UTS. Previously, she developed and led a special project course called the Robot Elective, which challenged design students to create robots that create joy and social impact.

The biocentric results, including a parkour exoskeleton that could adjust for all body types and abilities, an early-detection wildfire mitigation system that benefits both wildlife and humans, and a robot that could alleviate the menstrual pain, provide further proof that tomorrow’s robotics teams will only benefit from a diversity of perspectives.

As such, universities have an important role to play in rethinking who belongs in their robotics labs. To that end, Szapiro and Dr. Carmichael are teaming up to brainstorm new interdisciplinary opportunities for students across multiple UTS colleges.

Anyone can guess what that will look like, but the potential, they both agree, is huge.

“I come from a more hands-on robotics background; Deb is more about emotive, interactive robotics,” says Dr. Carmichael.

“We want to get our students together and see what comes out.”

Provided by the University of Technology Sydney

Citation: Robotics has a diversity problem. Will eliminating solely technology-oriented approaches lead to a solution? (March 9, 2023) Accessed March 11, 2023 at

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
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