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Robots positively influencing society. The possibilities are boundless.

Some might say Dr. Austin Lee, associate professor of communication at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), has a thing for robots. That would be something of an understatement.

Lee is fast becoming one of the country’s foremost experts on so-called “social robotics,” and he’s relying on his vast knowledge of the subject to educate regular folks as we move toward an increasingly robotics-driven reality — a prospect that can be as intimidating as it is exciting.

The shift can already be seen in self-driving cars and artificial intelligence (A.I.) assistants like Siri and Alexa, but Lee says it won’t be long until robots play a much more noticeable role in our everyday lives.

Lee’s current research — some of which involves his own robots, named Coconut and Pineapple — focuses on human/robot interaction with an emphasis on engineering positive changes in society. He is training soon-to-be college graduates around how advanced robots can interact and impact society.

Lee is convinced that robots can bring innovations that make the world a better place, and for his group, that could start at home on NKU’s campus.

“(My students’) task is to develop new applications for social robots,” says Lee. “Like an NKU ambassador robot, or a robotic coach at the cafeteria to persuade students to eat healthier, or a robot to promote the tobacco-free policy on campus. Or at our state-of-the-art recreation center to ask people to work out regularly. I’m focusing on creating positive changes using robots rather than making profits.”

Lee co-authored “The Role of Reciprocity in Verbally Persuasive Robots,” an academic report that outlines the current shift from using robots in confined factory and automation settings, to incorporating A.I. in our daily lives. Lee says other countries have been earlier than the U.S. to adopt “social robotics,” but the technology still leaves much to be desired.

“In other countries, there are humanoid robots in places like banks, grocery stores, cell phone stores — everywhere,” says Lee. “Their job is to sell something to people: a new data plan, an awesome cruise package. But there is no theoretical research behind it. So that study was about demonstrating the robot’s potential to influence people. Robots can be very effective at persuading people and utilizing some principles of persuasion from human communication.

Visit NKU’s Department of Communication to learn how experts like Dr. Lee are leading the conversation and educating people on human interaction in its many forms.

REDI Cincinnati’s ongoing Future-Proof Careers series explores efforts by some of Greater Cincinnati’s foremost educators, lawmakers, nonprofit professionals and business leaders to widen the talent pool for careers in modern advanced manufacturing.




Photo credit: Northern Kentucky University