Hey, Siri—WMU leads the way in studying human-robot communication

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Siri maps out your spring break road trip. Alexa orders groceries and finds a bedtime story for your kids. Google Assistant turns off the lights you forgot to dim on the way out the door or raises the thermostat when the polar vortex sets in.

Living with robots is no longer science fiction. Scientists have begun studying how humans and machines interact, and WMU is a leading voice in the field.

Dr. Autumn Edwards, a professor of communication, is launching an international journal exploring this new frontier. She will serve as the inaugural editor-in-chief alongside associate editors, Dr. Chad Edwards of WMU’s School of Communication and former WMU professor Patric Spence, who is currently working in the Nicholson School of Communication and Media at the University of Central Florida.

“What’s so exciting about this journal is the cutting-edge topic matter,” says Edwards. “There’s no other one-stop destination for this kind of work.”

Edwards says the idea for the Human-Machine Communication Journal came from talking to scholars in communication, media studies, human-robot interaction and psychology at various international conferences.

“There’s been a lot of historic interest in how technology mediates what we do with each other,” says Edwards. “Now, suddenly with things like voice assistants and the first social robots, people are actually turning to technology as an actual source and as a listener and talking to it, not through it.”

The journal’s editorial board is comprised of leading scholars from around the globe, representing every continent except Antarctica. They’ll review submissions with an extremely critical eye for the most advanced research in the field.

“It’s going to set the tone for what we know and how we study things in the future,” says Edwards.

The first edition of the Human-Machine Communication Journal is expected to be published in September. Leopoldina Fortunati, a professor at the University of Udine, Italy, will curate the inaugural volume as the journal’s first feature editor.

“She’s a really prominent Italian feminist Marxist sociologist. So, she’s thinking about the role of robots in society from a very philosophical level, and what it will mean for privileged groups and underprivileged groups and labor and reorganizing relations,” says Edwards.

Cutting-Edge Education

When it comes to understanding the relationship between humans and robots, WMU is paving the way. The University’s undergraduate human-machine communication course was the first of its kind in the country.

“I think in five to 10 years you’ll see that class as a standard offering in communication programs all over the country and the world, but here first,”
says Edwards.

WMU’s Communication & Social Robotics Labs was also the first robotics lab in the nation to be housed in a communication department.

“The students that we’ve trained here in human-machine communication… they’re all over the country in the best labs… because we’re the only people training at that level for what they want to do,” says Edwards. “We’re known internationally at this point as a place that’s on the forefront in HMC.”

Edwards says the demand for professionals in the field is staggering.

“Last time I checked, there were tens of thousands of open jobs in technology user interaction with an average starting salary between $90,000 and $100,000. We really need people who can tell us about how people are going to interact with the web interface of our app. What are good design principles? If we use artificial intelligence assistants, what should they say?”

Matthew Craig got to know Edwards as an undergraduate student majoring in organizational communication. He says the research she and Dr. Chad Edwards were doing in the social robotics lab piqued his interest.

“My specific interests in this field are related to how we communicate emotion and relationships through human-machine communication,” says Craig.

After graduating in 2017, Craig decided to pursue a master’s degree in communication at WMU.

“The field of human-machine communication is growing rapidly, much like how we communicate through technology is rapidly changing,” says Craig. “There are many applications for robots, ranging from retail to health care, but as this technology evolves, it’s important we understand how humans interact with it.”

Craig’s work at WMU has been recognized internationally. During his studies he’s examined interpersonal impressions of robots seeking rights and explored the moral and ethical concerns surrounding robot identity as well as assigning gender to machines.

“This program continues to give me hands-on experience with research,” says Craig, who in his first year has already been published in the proceedings of an international conference as well as received department and Universitywide graduate research and creative scholar awards. “It’s my experiences in this program that will set me apart from others in this field.”

Social Responsibility

Edwards says studying human-machine interaction is more important than ever as technology evolves. She says all communication entails some type of social influence, which can be threatening.

“Our position is that it’s critical to not turn away from this but towards it, because if communication scholars aren’t in the really early conversations, we don’t have a say in the ethics, in using them for social good, and in the appropriate norms we want to reinforce,” says Edwards. “Alexa and Siri both perform worse if you try to be polite. ‘Thank you’ and ‘please’ trip them up. So you’re rewarded for being really curt and loud and forceful.”

That could influence the conversations we have with other humans.

“If we’re talking to machines all the time and not being polite, we may lose some of the niceties that we’re expecting from each other.”