#5QW: Glenda Hannibal
Because of a not very promising maths test at school, Glenda was advised not to specialize in science. Now she is researching on Human-Robot Interaction.
How did you get in touch with Informatics?
I never thought I would be working in Computer Science as such, but in my childhood, I always liked to read popular science magazines. I found it very interesting: science and engineering, the bright illustrations explaining technologies of the future. Since I was not good at math, which is something everyone says you have to master well to become a great scientist – it never crossed my mind that I should try this path for my career. I finished high school with a specialization in social sciences and then decided to study philosophy at the university. I made this choice because I had a supportive teacher who also showed me that science and technology could be explored from such perspective. Initially, I thought I could become specialized in philosophy of mind and then get into cognitive sciences. However, for a group project during my BA, one of my professors suggested the topic of social robotics – that sounded interesting and suited my newfound interest in the philosophy of technology. I got hooked on studying how people interact with technology, especially how computer-based technology changes the way we see ourselves and influences our everyday life. And here I am, a philosopher at a technical university who engages with social robotics by asking fundamental philosophical questions while working hand-in-hand with engineers and computer scientists. I guess it shows there are many different career paths one can follow, and perhaps we should not always take too seriously what schoolteachers tell us.
What makes Informatics so fascinating for you?
Working here for almost a year now, I have a better sense of what Informatics is about. What fascinates me the most are questions related to the possible applications of Computer Science. I am especially curious about the application of Computer Science for the development of AI and robotic systems. For instance, how can we build computers that can reason and learn to employ, e.g., machine learning and computer vision? And are these methods something that can enable them to think, or even be intelligent? What are the challenges in developing autonomous robotic systems through different kinds of embodiments? And how do particular design strategies influence how people interact, reason, and experience such robotic systems? I am also interested in more historical and theoretical aspects. Not to forget the very captivating discussions about the philosophical foundation of logic and information theory. Although most philosophers today like to engage in ethical issues related to the design of computer-based technologies, it is of very little interest to me. Being in the Faculty of Informatics while not identify as either a logician or ethicist is sometimes challenging but also allows me to explore the many topics of Computer Science on my terms.
Which talents should people bring along for a career in Informatics?
You need analytic thinking and openness to constructive criticism, but it is also essential to be determined and courageous – you have to insist on following your interests because this will keep you going when things get challenging. If a topic interests you, but you would like to approach it from an unusual angle, follow your intuition. This is connected to the breadth of issues in Informatics, which makes it open to so many different approaches. That is why for Informatics being a good researcher is not only about being very specialized but also about bringing in different perspectives on the same issue or problem. A strong collaboration with researchers from the humanities and social sciences is essential in this context. Still, it also means that one often needs to get out of the disciplinary comfort zone.
Why do you think there are still so few women in Informatics?
This is a tricky question. The faculty does a lot to encourage and support women who want to pursue a career in Informatics, and I admire all the significant initiatives. But we have to be very careful not to reduce the discussion only to women in STEM! During my BA in philosophy, I was among only 12 women out of 70 students. And I was the only woman in my MA who decided to specialize in analytic philosophy. So already, then I was in a very male-dominated environment with very few female role models. This is something most people do not know and are surprised to hear when I tell them. So, the problem is not about being a woman in STEM, but more generally about being a woman in any field that relies on analytic skills and logical reasoning. Part of the discrimination of women is based on stereotypes that have more to do with cultural and social expectations than with the profile of particular disciplines. However, the underrepresentation of women in Computer Science and (analytic) philosophy can be taken as a symptom of this problem.
What are the challenges in your research area?
The biggest challenges and what motivated me to engage in social robotics in the first place, are the issues that arise from the attempt to develop and understand robotic systems that appear to humans as agent-like. The fundamental question is if we can warrant the use of mentalistic notions (e.g., beliefs, consciousness, intentions, trust, desires) to speak about such robotic systems during interactions. And how does this differ from the way people rationally reconstruct their experience of interaction? As part of the Trust Robots Doctoral College for my PhD, I investigate how an emphasis on vulnerability as a precondition of trust in social human-robot interaction can help us better understand and develop future use cases and empirical studies. With my focus on the nature of trust in social human-robot interaction, I contribute not only with a more theory-driven approach to current discussions but also how better integration of knowledge across different disciplines is essential for successful uptake of robotic systems in human everyday life and society.
Interview: Claudia Vitt, 2019