Ethnographic study of two robot laboratories: emerging ideas about future users of technology in engineering practice.

In general, technological development activities are assumed to be different from the context of use. We now know that instead of being different, users are represented as part of ongoing technology design activities. It is specifically the practices in which engineers participate that shape their ideas about future users. This is the finding of our most recent ethnographic study published in the Social Studies of Science journal.
As engineers create and develop new technologies, how do we envision future users? Given the rapid progress and development of artificial intelligence and robotics, and the believing fears surrounding its impact on future societies, this has become a pertinent question. Ideas about future users can affect the way new technologies will be designed and implemented in our future societies.

Engineering practices evoke user images

future users of technology

So how do engineers imagine future users? To answer this question, we partnered with engineers working in two robot labs over a 6-month period, and watched how we developed their articulated technologies and ideas about future users. What we found is that user images and design activities are related. Engineers developed ideas about possible use situations, as these ideas are evoked by specific design activities; or, as we call them, "activities that evoke images".

To better understand this phenomenon, we must analyze the detailed work that is done in the laboratories: as the engineers carry out their daily work, get involved in different sub-actions, write software code, test how the codes affect the robot. movements, or share these ideas within the online community. Together, these sub-actions form broader activities, each with its own purpose. We found four of these activities from our observations: distinguishing technological work from other types of work, expanding what is technologically possible, universalizing the applicability of developed technologies, and making robots similar to humans.

By "evocation of images", we mean that each of these activities evokes a set of places of use. For example, universal applicability caused engineers to imagine user scenarios in various industries and make robots look human with images of robots replacing humans, in a variety of environments. To think about this breadth and variety of possible usage situations available to engineers, it may be helpful to imagine how these different shapes form a "user image landscape", with some images in the background, some blurry, and some quite obvious.

How can this help technological development?

Well, technologies can fail if they don't correspond to the wishes or wishes of the users. Therefore, there is a need for adequate user images, so that millions of investments in robotics and artificial intelligence are not wasted. Our study speaks to this need. By developing a better understanding of how users imagine in practice, we are now beginning to learn how and how we can improve these images; and better adapt them to our needs and expectations.

Crucially, our findings will find that we must be more controlled over the local environments in which technologies are built. We have shown how ideas are created about future users in engineering practice, and this can have an impact on how future technologies are built. This means that the user is created within the laboratory, as part of ongoing design practices. Therefore, if we want to change certain practices or ways of imagining future users, we must bear in mind that our concerns, such as user participation or participatory design, must be adjusted to the practical realities of the laboratories. They automatically need what the daily work of engineers looks like.

Everyday engineering in robot laboratories.

future robotics\

In our case, multiple problems of future use became evident: robots in different industries, in factories, in hospitals, in care centers. Robots that replace human labor, or parts of what humans do right now. All of these seem possible possible futures. However, the impact of robots and the rise of automation in our future society is the subject of ongoing discussions. Millions of jobs can threaten verses, but robots can also work by providing assistance or creating new jobs.

In this context, our study shows that there is much to be learned by studying the context in which robots are built and created. And it implies that we must ask ourselves: what roles do we really want robots and artificial intelligence to fulfill? Do we want them to replace humans? What are our social needs? Only if we become clearer about our own desires can robot engineers possibly serve them.

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