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Sparks first newsletter

This quarterly newsletter will inform you about the activities, the outcomes and learning from the project. Each issue will feature an interview with an expert to explore technological shifts in health and medicine from various points of view. This time we look at an important trend in this field: the increasing role of robots, not only as surgeons or intelligent monitors but also as caretakers, in particular for the elderly.


Welcome to the Sparks project's first newsletter!

Sparks is an awareness-raising project to show Europeans that various stakeholders share the responsibility for science, research and innovation. Sparks seeks to promote a better understanding of the concept of Responsible Research and Innovation through concrete examples in the field of technology shifts in health and medicine, showing citizens that they can play an active role in defining future health therapies and health-related products.

Gathering 33 organisations from 29 European countries, and led by Ecsite, Sparks is aimed at bridging the gap between the super-fast pace of scientific innovation and society through an interactive exhibition and over 230 engaging activities taking place across the whole of the European Union.

This quarterly newsletter will inform you about the activities, the outcomes and learning from the project. Each issue will feature an interview with an expert to explore technological shifts in health and medicine from various points of view. 
This time we look at an important trend in this field: the increasing role of robots, not only as surgeons or intelligent monitors but also as caretakers, in particular for the elderly.
We hope that you will find this first issue as instructive as enjoyable to read!


  • We have a new website! Visit to learn more about the project and its activities.
  • Three artists have been selected to be part of the Sparks project: read more about artistic views on new technologies in health and medicine here. More to come on our website and social media soon: stay tuned!


An interview with Prof. Dr. Michaela Pfadenhauer, Institute of Sociology, University of Vienna, Austria
Prof. Dr. Michaela Pfadenhauer
You recently co-edited a Theme Issue of The International Journal of Social Robotics called “Social Robots: Form, Content, Critique”. What are the big research questions in your field at the moment? 

The biggest problem at the moment in social robotics research is that since only a few robots have overcome the status of prototypes developed and tested in laboratory settings, we do not have empirical data in everyday life settings from which we can learn how people actually engage with social robots and which are the consequences of such interactions. Hence, besides theoretical questions that run deep into our self-understanding and ethical considerations there are rather serious methodological problems.

As a sociologist, how do you study this development? 
The sociology of knowledge approach chosen by my research group in Vienna (one among several possible theoretical and methodological approaches of the topic) is based on the fundamental concept of sociality. Starting from that, we empirically study how people (i.e. care workers) integrate social robots in their everyday life and/or professional work. We are particularly interested in the patterns of interaction they develop and the communicative forms arising from that. In regard to society as a whole, the main questions are whether this advanced technology becomes an institution in professional and/or everyday life and which cultural change is to be expected.
On the level of social theory, the main idea is not only to investigate the phenomenon as it stands in the apparent moment (i.e. in the concrete situation of human-robot interaction) but also to ask about the conditions which make things happen.

Sparks promotes the idea of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). What do you think are the main societal and ethical questions raised by healthcare robot companions? What is your take on the involvement of citizens in the research process? 
Healthcare robots are only one possible (I would say over- simple) solution to the challenge of elderly care in the near future.  The question of how to address this growing need should neither be underestimated nor left to politicians, economists and technicians only.
As I see it, we face two challenges: first, the ongoing unsolved problem of interdisciplinary collaboration and second, following Alfred Schütz’ typology of experts, ‘well-informed citizens’ and ‘men on the street’, we need to involve not only those who are used to think about these issues.
During my professorship at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology I participated in a workshop on Robots and Care with roboticists, nursing scientists and care professionals and found that sociology was good in bridging the gap between various disciplines. And as an ethnographer I am in a good position because giving a voice to regular people is one of the pleasant side effects of ethnography. By saying that, I do not promote a participative approach but an explicit focus on everyday life orientations and perspectives.
As I see it, considerations about any big societal issues should not begin with thinking about the usefulness of technology. Moreover, even sociologists often miss to start their societal diagnoses from their own needs and wishes but prefer to talk about abstract others. For all of us in modern times, individualization on the one hand and pluralization on the other will be the big issues of the next decades. The social robots we are talking about here will be part of a social context in which how to conciliate different ways of living, cultures, world views and self-understandings will be core questions.
What is the future of robots in healthcare looks like in your opinion? Is our society moving towards a fully ‘roboticised’ healthcare system?
As long as the problem of ‘too few hands for a growing elderly population’ is used and accepted among policy makers, economists, technicians and some scholars, there is a big chance that robots will become even more present in healthcare. This kind of argumentation will allow them to push for more testing and implementation of robots as a solution to this demographic problem. There are however already now a lot of scholars asking important questions about such a development and pointing out that there might be some undesirable consequences.
On a more abstract level, the idea of a separation between a human world and a robotic world is not possible to uphold when you look at human activities already involving robots like military, space, underwater, or rescuer work. In many of these cases humans still play a big role in the working of these robots even though it might not seem like it from an outsider perspective. So the question about whether we will have a ‘fully roboticised healthcare system’ is assuming that when implemented, humans will no longer be part of the picture. This, I argue, is not going to be the case. Healthcare robots can only exist when humans and robots work together. As technology in general, robots are always objects in action.

I would like to close by emphasizing that while we are not facing a roboticized society, social robots may enrich social life as well as the social world in general. By saying that, I argue that instead of substitution (e.g. workers, jobs, face-to face communication) due to robotics we will face a growth of complexity and variety concerning communication and cultural change.


Without academic pretention and with the ambition to use as little jargon as possible, this article is your nutshell introduction to the concept lying behind these three letters.
RRI stands for “Responsible Research and Innovation”, a concept strongly supported by the European Commission as part of the Horizon 2020 research framework and a key aspect of the Sparks project.
The six pillars of Responsible Research and Innovation.

Put simply, RRI is the idea that since research and innovation have an impact on society, scientists as individuals and the research and innovation community as a system have a social, even societal, responsibility. Conversely, politicians, industries and citizens can’t leave the burden of responsibility on the scientists’ shoulders only – they need to define where society wants to go and get involved in setting research agendas that will take us there.
Seen from a less utilitarian perspective, RRI is also about recognising and valuing the competences of people who aren’t scientists but actually hold important knowledge, opinions, desires and ideas for the advancement of science.  That is, you’re not “ignorant” because you don’t know the scientific formula behind a certain phenomenon: you have an important know-how based on your daily experience of facing or using outcomes of research and innovation.
Building on the many initiatives developed in the past decades to “decrease the distance between science and society”, RRI “seeks to bring issues related to research and innovation into the open, to anticipate the consequences of research and innovation, and to involve society in discussing how science and technology can help create the kind of world and the kind of society we want for generations to come.” [1]
RRI is a concept under construction: quite logically, agreeing on a consensual definition of RRI and building tools for this new field is being run as a participatory process itself. To go beyond the nutshell, check out the Beginner’s Guide to RRI published in the Spokes magazine, which formed the basis of this article.
[1]  RRI Tools: towards RRI in action, Policy Brief, October 2014, p.1 – downloadable here.


RRI in practice is not an easy task: it is fair to say that no single project has yet met all requirements to be identified as “pure RRI” – but many initiatives contain promising developments. Today we would like to look specifically at the field of healthcare and the technology shifts that are impacting it.
In 2024, it’s estimated that there will be four times as many 80-year olds living in Amsterdam as there are now, and most of those will need some type of health care.[1]
60 cm long robotic body with a friendly doll-like face: Alice is a healthcare robot for elderly people developed by the SELEMCA team in Amsterdam. The main aim of Alice is to act as an effective social companion for lonely elderly people. However, this aim was not there from the start of the research process: it evolved through observations, focus-groups with the elderly, interviews, and conversations as well as literature research.
The team behind the creation of the robot was very multi-disciplinary, involving computer scientists, robotics scientists, designers, psychologists, companies etc. From the beginning, it engaged users from the start of the design process, asking them about their needs and then seeking a remedy against loneliness came very high up in these conversations.
 Alice - social robot
Alice the robot was presented to Sparks Partners during the first workshop in Amsterdam on October 9th 2015.

Another important step in the ongoing enhancement of the robot was the production of a documentary, Alice Cares, directed by Sander Burger. “The documentary follows robot Alice who is visiting elderly ladies, living on their own and feeling lonely. Alice has the lively face of a young girl and can be fully animated […] Perhaps more importantly, she can listen and talk.”[2] Not only had the documentary served the purpose of engaging the public with the project, but it has also significantly contributed to the research process as such. For example, scientists from SELEMCA mentioned that during the documentary they realised that ‘the existing intelligence and technology we develop does not really tackle the problem of the social isolation of the ladies.  […] perhaps we should tone down a little on our ambitions and direct our attention to the users’ unmet needs.’[3]
As one can imagine there are also many ethical questions associated with using machines for something as sensitive as working with the elderly. For example should robots eventually fully substitute human healthcare? Both the director of the documentary and the researchers are convinced that the answer is ‘no’. Burger mentions that robots should always be an addition to quality patient care and never a substitute for it. However, if robots could feed, wash and dress people, health-care workers could have more time to socialise and talk to the elderly. 
Another ’RRI box’ that Alice ticks is Open Access [4]. All of its research results are open source. Johan F. Hoorn, who leads the SELEMCA team in Amsterdam, believes that if investigators were more open about their research, the development of robots would progress much faster.
Alice is still a work in progress and both the research result and the research process can be improved. Like we said earlier no project fully follows RRI principles, but this example is definitely a good start and something to look up to.
 ‘Alice Cares’, a film by Sander Burger – watch the trailer here
[1] Film: Caredroids in health care, Natalie Harrison, Vol 386 July 18, 2015
[2] The In-between Machine: The Unique Value Proposition of a Robot or Why we are Modelling the Wrong Things. Johan F. Hoorn, Elly A. Konijn, Desmond M. Germans, Sander Burger and Annemiek Munneke. ICAART 2015 - International Conference on Agents and Artificial Intelligence
[3] Ibid
[4] The EU has identified six pillars upon which RRI is built: engagement of all societal actors, gender (gender equality and gender in research and innovation content), science education (formal and informal), open access, ethics and governance.
This newsletter was written by Ecsite, the European network of science centres and museums.  
Ecsite is the coordinator of the Sparks project. Ecsite’s vision is to foster creativity and critical thinking in European society, emboldening citizens to engage with science. Its mission is to inspire and empower science centres, museums and all organisations that engage people with science, and to promote their actions. The network gathers more than 350 organisations in Europe and world-wide.

Coordination: KEA European Affairs, responsible for the Sparks communication strategy.


Events date: 
Thursday, November 26, 2015