#5QW: Astrid Weiss
Astrid tells us how robots led her to pioneer in a transdisciplinary research field – although at first, she only knew them from movies.
Astrid Weiss is Assistant Professor at TU Wien Informatics’ Human Computer Interaction Research Unit. She is regarded as one of the pioneers in combining empirical social research and robotics, both in co-designing the research area and in industry-related research. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology and Human-Computer Interaction, has won two FWF scholarships and was elected as a member of the Young Academy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW).
How did you get in touch with informatics?
My story is unlike most because I initially have a background in social sciences. I studied sociology at the University of Salzburg, specializing in methods for empirical social research and applied statistics. At that time, the interdisciplinary research center ICT & S was established. It aimed to bridge computer and communication sciences. I was always more interested in doing actual studies than developing theory, so I decided to participate in an empirical research project on technology use in the home. The interactive TV technology I was researching back then didn’t survive – but my commitment to Human-Computer Interaction research did.
When the Human-Computer Interaction Group at the ICT & S center won an EU grant for a project on the social acceptance of humanoid robots, Prof. Manfred Tscheligi asked me to join the team. I was very hesitant. All I knew about robots was stuff from movies. But Prof. Tscheligi talked me into it – he was one of the first people that convinced me that there is a very close link between sociology and technology development.
For me, robotics turned out to be an excellent boundary object: Apart from my sociological approach, I get in touch with all kinds of technology development, from programming the algorithms to hardware and mechanics.
What makes informatics so fascinating for you?
Informatics enables us to create meaningful technology. It’s the best bridging discipline I have found so far. What fascinates me most about my specific field of Human-Robot Interaction research, is the link between user studies and robot development: How we can actually feed the knowledge we gain from studying people interacting with robots back into the technology development. This is no 1:1 process but requires “translation”.
What are the challenges in your research area?
My biggest challenge is trying not to reinvent the wheel but to be creative. Through my transdisciplinary research, I was able to gain a broad skill set in translating my methods and results for people building and programming systems. The ways to address problems and solutions in Human-Robot Interaction research are manifold: When I first came to TU Wien, I worked in the Vision for Robotics Group at the Electrical Engineering Faculty. My research was rather tech-deterministic, focusing on technical problem-solving and “translating” study findings accordingly. Moving to TU Wien Informatics’ Human Computer Interaction Research Unit, my focus became more people-driven again. It made me challenge my assumptions about what meaningful robots are, and what human-centered design needs truly entail. Being in the field for 15 years, I want to keep challenging myself and not stay in my research comfort zone.
Where do you see the connection between your research and everyday life?
My research is, in general, very close to everyday life because it starts with people using technology. We are researching and developing tech for specific people, in particular contexts such as work or care. More and more studies are done outside the lab in people’s actual living spaces. My last FWF project SharedSpace is one example: We took the commercially available companion robot Anki Vector to people’s households for eight months. Our goal was to understand how the robot was adopted and integrated into everyday life.
Why do you think there are still so few women in computer science?
I am convinced that STEM education should start early, in kindergarten or primary school. When it comes to academia, the compatibility of family and career is a big issue. It can hardly be beneficial for family planning if your chance to gain a permanent position in your early 30ies is close to zero. And most importantly: Role models are crucial. Throughout my career, I have witnessed that research groups have more female members if the head of the group is female. So, I think it comes down to social factors and nothing else.
Read more about Astrid Weiss in the context of TU Wien’s Frauenspuren HEUTE (in German).
Discover the whole #5QW series.