School of Communication and Journalism
Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez
What are you currently working on?
First of all, I would like to thank Bieke Zaman for the nomination. With my team at RobotLAB UAI we are wrapping up the data collection of two studies, one qualitative and the other quantitative, among 7- to 11-year-old Chilean children. The qualitative study investigates children’s perceptions of their first ever encounter with a social robot, seeking to provide empirical evidence of how children approach interactions with these new entities, while bringing insights from other disciplines, such as design. The quantitative study is a collaboration with the University of Amsterdam’s CHILDROBOT team and consists of a replication study about gratifications in interactions with social robots, only this time, we are using what to the best of my knowledge is Chile’s only social robot, SIMA robot, an anthropomorphic robot with a rather cute design and which is affordable. This latter study, which we started earlier this year, we have carried out fully online (on Zoom), due to the pandemic. However, using an online platform brought the great advantage that children from all over the country could participate, not a minor thing for a country which is more than 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) long! With regards to the qualitative study, which came later in the year, and thankfully due to Chile’s successful vaccination program against Covid-19, we have been able to carry out this study face-to-face in two central regions of Chile, for which we have included children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
It is a bit challenging to reflect on this, because I’m in the middle of a project now and I have the feeling that more are yet to come (which is a good feeling!). But looking back, I could say that my PhD project had many special elements which made it very memorable. This project investigated the process and outcomes of sharing emotions online, during which I carried out studies using international, Dutch, and Chilean samples, employing a variety of methods (experiment, content analysis and longitudinal survey). It was a fantastic learning experience and I have many fond memories of my supervisors, mentors, and colleagues which I met along this path, at a leading research institute such as the Amsterdam School of Communication Research. Also, this experience provided me with many insights, such as the particularities of gathering data in different countries. If you are curious as to which, to my surprise, carrying out a multiwave survey in Chile was not that different than what you would expect in the Netherlands. In Chile, conducting an experiment was quite challenging, particularly finding participants, for which I had help from a local University and I’m very grateful for that. Talking about collecting experimental data, I admired the online pool of participants at the University of Amsterdam’s Behavioural Science Lab. After sharing your study description on their site, people simply sign up to participate and start to show up! This system worked very seamlessly, and I wish that universities in Chile could have it as well.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
It would be nice to let achievements speak for themselves, but if asked, I can say that I’m very excited to have founded and be leading RobotLAB UAI at UAI’s regional campus, located at the lovely beach city of Viña del Mar, which is meaningful since Chile is heavily centralized. RobotLAB UAI has the goal of conducting empirical research on social robotics and also to become a regional hub for social robotics and AI-related research projects which can help the community and advance the communication field forward. Further, the lab is supported by a competitive governmental fund (FONDECYT) which I had the honour to be awarded. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first of such a fund awarded in Chile for a communication research project to investigate interactions between children and social robots. Moreover, the lab has an interdisciplinary staff of research assistants, which I also see as a way to generate and disseminate experience and knowledge in the region.
Although the lab was founded in 2020, we have already co-organized two main conference days as part of the Culture Social Media conference, which is organized by UAI’s School of Communication and Journalism. In this conference we invite leading international experts to present keynotes on emergent topics. You can see its 2020 version about social robots here, and the 2021 version focusing on the impact of artificial intelligence in the news here.
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?
I believe that in the topic of social robots and interactions with children there are so many questions to face and even though it seems like a “futuristic” topic, there are pressing questions that we need to resolve! At least two big questions come to the fore. First, the aspect of privacy in child-robot interactions usually raises many questions from parents and practitioners, such as, which aspects of the interactions should be recorded, by whom, and for which purpose? Do children “care” about their privacy with this new medium? What is the role of the private enterprise and the State in protecting users’ privacy when children use a social robot? When should legislation come in? I believe that these questions require much more research than what we now have available.
Second, the question of ontologically defining what a social robot is and could/should be, and more importantly: how far we want them to develop, not only with children, but with humans more generally. Should a social robot act and communicate similar to a human, yes or no, and more importantly: why? Do we want social robots to be like us, until what extent, and is that even desirable? Should they surpass us in certain areas, why and for which purposes? There are approaches that posit, for instance, that human-robot interactions should be modelled more after human-pet relationships, instead of attempting to approximate human-human communication as much as possible. I sense that this dilemma is far from resolved, and we as researchers could shed more light into it.
What would be your work motto?
I try to always be aware that our work is a privilege, that it has societal impact, thus we must try to conduct ourselves with much ethic and discipline. Also, striving to balance all new and exciting ideas without losing focus and the long-term perspective is a challenge, but easier to manage if one is aware of it.
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
I actually have two favorite publications so far. The first I pick because of its methodological complexity and also because it is peculiar in its questions and data collection. A six-wave study of Chilean youngsters while they undertook a very competitive SAT university selection exam (in Chile known as the PSU), gauging the emotions that they shared on social media and the impact of this feedback on their emotions. This study was challenging in many aspects, however, in the end it was very satisfying to hear students write down in the open comments: “it was a fun study to be in, and it was particularly nice that somebody paid attention to us.” Untangling within from between person relationships, the study found that supportive messages over social media channels slightly – with emphasis on the word “slightly” – decreased stress among students, while face-to-face messages did not show an effect.
The second one is theoretical and more in line with my recent research line in social robotics, dealing with the process of communicative affordance formation in human-robot interactions (you can access it here). This paper was purely developing my own ideas and coming out with a framework, which felt a bit intimidating at first, but with time I’m satisfied with the result. I also treasure it because it appeared on the first issue of an open access journal specially dedicated to human-machine communication.
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
On a recent book chapter (in press), I discuss the necessity of research to be carried out more multimodally, that is, studies which go beyond analyzing one-shot interactions; go beyond studying the most basic emotions (e.g. happiness, fear); go beyond studying just one type of communication (for instance incorporating not only what is said or audio communication, but also tactile and visual communication); go beyond studying communication in only one context, such as a consumer-based scenario, and which go beyond using only one type of data collection (i.e. self-report). Naturally, this all sounds pretty ambitious, but after all, it’s not impossible, and as researchers, we ideally strive to study phenomena in the most complete way. So under this perspective, if I were so lucky to have unlimited resources 😊 I would like to carry out a longitudinal study of children interacting with one type of social robot, but over multiple interactions, in different contexts (i.e. in schools and their home), considering multiple communication modes (i.e. tactile communication and voice interactions), with multiple ways to collect data, such as combining self-report with neurological data for instance, and considering effects on more complex emotions (i.e. guilt, love) instead of the most basic ones.
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Know thyself, trust thyself, and keep going at it! Know what interests you, what moves you, and once you do, trust your ideas and develop a firm plan. Despite the setbacks, which we all experience, with trust and a dose of healthy optimism, you can overcome a big deal.
Also, cooperation and kindness go a long way. Like a saying in Spanish states: “do good and don’t look at whom.”
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I would like to nominate Ine Beyens for the spotlight. Her research on adolescents’ social media use has won several awards and as part of Project AWeSome, she has led studies with a very interesting N = 1 approach, I certainly would like to hear more about that! She also has been a very active and collaborative CAM member and I’m lucky to have her as a friend.