Telepresence Robot Communication, Gender, and Metaphors of (Dis)ability

Susan Herring


The principal use of telepresence robots is for human-human communication, where at least one person (the pilot) is remote via the robot and one or more persons (locals) are on site. It is important, therefore, to understand the nature of such communication – how locals perceive robot pilots as social actors, how robotic mediation affects interactional dynamics and norms, and how the experience of telepresence robot communication varies for different groups of users. In this talk, I address these questions through the dual lenses of gender and (dis)ability. I report the findings of a mock job interview study in which a male interviewer used a Beam+ telepresence robot, and the male and female interviewees were primed in advance with one of three metaphors about the interviewer – as a robot, as a (normal) human, or as a human with disabilities (cf. Takayama & Go, 2012). The interviews and reponses to a post-study survey were analyzed for interaction with, and attitudes toward, the robot interviewer. Initial results reveal differences across genders and across metaphorical priming conditions, but whereas the former are largely consistent with previous findings on gender and technology, the metaphor findings were unexpected. I discuss evidence that telepresence robot communication privileges some groups of communicators over others and suggest possible interventions – including metaphor manipulation and modifications to the robots themselves – to establish a level playing field before telepresence robot communication practices, which are currently emergent, become fixed.

Biographical Note: Susan Herring is Professor of Information Science and Linguistics at Indiana University, Bloomington. Mobility challenged herself, she uses and researches telepresence robots. She is also a long-time researcher of digitally-mediated communication, Director of IU’s Center for Computer-Mediated Communication, a past editor of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and current editor of Language@Internet.