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NWO Vidi for Anastasia Sergeeva

21 July 2022
The Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) has awarded 101 experienced researchers, six of whom are from VU Amsterdam, with a Vidi grant of 800,000 euros. One of the researchers is ethnographer of work and technology Anastasia Sergeeva. She receives the Vidi for her research ‘Robots at work: Bridging the gap between the robotic development and workplace use.’

Despite robots increasingly entering our work lives, we know surprisingly little about their impact on jobs. With this study Sergeeva will explain how our work is changing once robots are entering work settings to serve as partners of humans. By following over several years, how robots are developed in the lab and used “in the wild” she will reveal unexpected consequences of robots for the task, team, and role dimensions of work. The findings will then be fed back to engineering labs, implementors and policymakers to ensure that future generation of robots is designed to support rather than undermine our work lives. The study will be conducted at the KIN Centre for Digital Innovation. 

Why is it so important to learn more about robots at work?
According to Sergeeva robotic innovation is an area of both enthusiasm and concern. "Engineers are excited to build intelligent robotic applications with the aim to alleviate difficult, risky, or boring jobs, such as cleaning, bomb diffusion, transportation of goods or surveillance. Labour economists and public commentators, in turn, put forward gloomy scenarios of jobs becoming obsolete, degraded or void of meaning. Currently, however, we lack a rigorous insight into how robots are really used in situated work practice. Without such insight, engineers are in the dark about what impact robots have on work and have few methods of including work context into account when building robotic applications. As a result, we risk ending up with robots that are technically sound but are not well adapted to the complexities of organizational life, and therefore may eventually devoid jobs of their core meaning, sociality and fun, history of Taylorism repeating itself."

"Rigorous academic knowledge is thus urgently needed to understand how robots are used in practice and with what consequence for work. With such knowledge, we can generate a productive dialog between engineering science and organization science, creating synergy between traditionally disconnected fields and ensuring that we build robots that support rather than undermine our work lives."

How will you gather this knowledge in the coming years?
"I will conduct several ethnographic studies of professional service robots at work. Because professional service robots aim to serve as partners in teams and are employed in unstructured work environments, they require novel methods and approaches that go beyond the focus on a single human - single robot interaction and instead recognize the embeddedness of the robot into work teams, as well as richness, unruliness, and institutional nature of work domains. In this study, I will develop such approach building on the insights from ethnographic studies of robots used in different settings."

How will this research contribute to society?
"The most important societal stakeholders include robotic developers, managers policy makers, as well as front-line workers who are direct recipients of robotic technology."

"The project will develop actionable principles for the design and development of robots, ensuring that engineers are able to actually incorporate knowledge about work and organizing into their design practices. The project will also be valuable for managers: we will outline what priorities need to be considered, how to best prepare for the roll-out and how to meaningfully engage in the robotic introduction, as well as what tensions to expect and what skills need to be emphasized and developed for employees."