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Ideas, Progress & the Future

How we engage with and think about robots

According to Government statistics, women make up only 27 per cent of the workforce across all STEM industries. It can feel a bit lonely – and those professionals may long for a wonderful support network. Social enterprise Franklin Women is making a splash in Canberra. On 29 November, they’ll be holding an event for women in the health and medical research ecosystem to come together and connect. University of Canberra research psychologist, Dr Janie Busby Grant, is involved with Franklin Women’s Canberra chapter – she tells BroadAgenda editor Ginger Gorman about her work.

If you were sitting next to someone at a dinner party, how would you explain your work and research in a nutshell?

There’s a bunch of different ways of answering this! I usually say I’m a researcher and lecturer in cognitive psychology, so I investigate different aspects of how people think, using approaches like experiments, surveys, interviews and ‘living labs.’

Some of my research looks at how we remember the past and imagine the future, and how this links in with mental health issues like anxiety. For example, in a recent analysis with my PhD student, Jessica Du, we found that people with high levels of anxiety imagine negative future events more vividly, and in more detail, than people with low levels of anxiety, and it’s the opposite pattern for positive events. This type of research can help us understand what drives or maintains anxiety in people, and help develop interventions to reduce anxiety, which is really relevant given the high rates of anxiety we’re seeing at the moment, especially among young people.

I also do a lot of work in human-robot interaction, which is about how we engage with and think about robots. In our Collaborative Robotics Lab, UC roboticist Damith Herath and I look at factors that affect how robots interact with people in environments like aged care homes and hospitals.

I really like heading out ‘into the field’ with our team to see how robots are currently being used in different settings, and working out how we can improve the design, functions and roll-out of robots in those environments.

It’s a really exciting field, because there are so many questions we don’t have answers to yet – not just practical issues about where and when to deploy robots, but deeper questions about what people understand and believe about them, and how this can be shaped by different features of the interaction. There’s so much to do!

How do you incorporate the insights and experiences of people into your work in a way that’s ethical? How do you get them interested in what you’re doing?

The best way to figure out what’s going on in a particular situation is to approach it from a lot of different angles, and I try do this in all of my work. So for example, with my work with young people and anxiety, we have projects analysing the data from big randomised controlled trials of interventions that could improve their wellbeing, but then also smaller projects where we ask young people directly about their personal experiences of the things they think affect their anxiety.

Incorporating people’s perspectives in different ways not only gives you new ideas and helps stop you going down dead ends in a research sense, but also makes sure the people you’re working with are heard, giving them space to say in their own words what matters to them, which is critical.

Similarly with our robotics work, we’ve got these highly-structured lab-based studies where we try to control everything except the variable we’re interested in, but then out in real world situations, it’s about listening to people and trying to understand their perspectives on the situation or problem. One of our lab students, Sharni Konrad, is great at this – finding and listening to people to help understand how or why a robot might be being used (or not used!).

Without incorporating everyone’s voices, there just isn’t going to be a good outcome – whether you define a ’good outcome’ from a scientific, efficiency, accessibility or ethical standpoint.

Let’s wind back the clock a bit. Why did you go into this field? What was compelling about it? 

Great question. At a really basic level, I guess I’m interested in why people do things – I think a lot of us feel this way! I’m just lucky enough to have a job in which I get to do this.

I was always drawn to how we think, and what factors affect our thinking. When combined with my interest in technology, I found myself in human-computer interaction, human-robot interaction, and Artificial Intelligence.

What impact do you hope your work has?

I wouldn’t be in this job if I didn’t think I could make a difference! I do like that I get to contribute in a lot of different ways.

On a very basic level, I’m contributing to what we know about how the mind works, and then there’s the potential applicability of this work in mental health treatment. Some recent analysis we did, looking at what factors predict suicidal behaviours in young people, is helping to build the case for anxiety as an important predictor of later behaviours, and anything we can contribute in that space is so important.

I also think everyone recognises that we’re at a significant point with humans and technology, and my role here is to help focus on the human perspective – the more psychology and social science researchers we can get working in this space, the better! We need multidisciplinary answers to these questions, and sometimes it can be hard to get all the right people ‘in the room’.

And I also teach a lot! I work with several hundred first year students every year, teaching them about how to conduct research, and it is really rewarding to give them lots of real world examples of how to do research, and talk about why understanding and knowing how to do it is important.

Do you view yourself as feminist researcher? Why? Why not? What does the word mean to you in the context of your own values and also your work?

Yes, definitely. I think of myself as a feminist always, including in my research. I think it pervades all aspects of how I go about my work, how I identify and learn from my participants, how I try to ensure I’m hearing from a diversity of sources, how I interpret and report on my findings.

And then there are all the practical ways in which I try to support women in research, particularly through providing opportunities for up-and-coming female researchers – and seeking out mentoring from women more experienced than me.

Particularly in the technology space, there’s still a whole lot more we need to do for girls and women to get engaged with technology – we see a lot of great female representation in psychology, but … not so much once you start getting into the humans-and-tech space. So I’m working to bring in some great young female researchers into the field!

Why did you get involved with Franklin Women?

Speaking of supporting women and being supported … I’ve so much enjoyed being part of Franklin Women for the last year or so – it’s been a whole new way of finding interesting women to talk with about a whole range of work (and not-work!) issues.

I started with their mentoring program last year, which was fantastic and really helped me rework what I want to achieve over the next few years. Since then, it’s been fantastic to find a dedicated space that is work-adjacent – supporting me within the research space, while being a social community as well.

I’m super excited to be part of their new Canberra Peer Advisory Group next year!

When: Wednesday 29 November 2023 5.30–8pm

Where: Hotel Realm, 18 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600

Tickets: Members – $29, Non-members – $55 * (Your ticket includes food and drinks)

Book here

This article was first published on BroadAgenda on 17 November 2022. Photo: stock image.

Words by Ginger Gorman, BroadAgenda's Editor. Ginger is a multi-award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Her book Troll Hunting came out in 2019, and she is the gender editor at HerCanberra.

Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

BroadAgenda is Australia’s leading research-based gender equality media platform, published by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation.

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