Do you know what the beach feels like?” The voice of the robot sounds a bit shaky, but sympathetic. It seems the robot really wants to know. All by itself, this autonomous robot is having a conversation with Mrs. L. It looks white, androgynous, and has the size of a primary school child. With small wheels instead of feet, and a tablet on its chest. The robot’s name is Memo. The writers thought it would be a witty name, because the lady across the robot has a form of dementia. ‘…’ Mrs L. hesitates for a bit, while she feels with her fingers in the jar of beach sand that the robot just gave her. Then she says: “Floury… The beach feels floury”. “That’s interesting”, Memo the robot responds.

The conversation between Memo the robot and Mrs L. is happening in a corner of the recreation area at the care centre. She comes here every Thursday for the daytime activities. By her side is one of her familiar care workers. Memo the robot is accompanied by one of the authors who designed the interaction; just in case the robot gets a bit confused. From a distance, a few more elderly are looking curiously, wondering what’s going on over there, with that oddly speaking device sitting in the corner.

Literary culture
Writing speech for a healthcare robot is a new aspect of the changing literary practice. Until deep in the 20th century, literary writing was marked by the traditional communication format. The author was an original genius, bringing stories to the reading public via publishers, printers, and book stores. The author of today, as a consequence of digitalisation and the equal access to distribution methods, is increasingly becoming an unoriginal genius, who often has to work uncreatively. This modern author understands the art of story collection and sampling, recycling texts, reordering and distributing them via multiple channels.

Transdisciplinary co-creation
Complex social issues can only be solved by crossing the boundaries of disciplines and domains, from a cohesive set of perspectives. The transdisciplinary co-creation that is needed for this is the research topic in the Robotstories projects: a methodology for collaboration and collective research. The authors of Robotstories are part of a collective. They write their texts iteratively, together with interaction designers, software programmers, healthcare workers, and, of course, the participating elderly. The stories are shaped by the interplay between them. This means that the writers are required to hand over a part of their authorship, while it demands from the other disciplines to think in terms of narratives. The product is no longer a literary artefact, but a creative production process: a development that eventually leads to a kind of catharsis for each of the creators involved.

"We are researching how meaningful communication and interaction between human and robot can be stimulated, by strategies that are focused on narrativity and on the personal stories of the conversation partner."

Meaningful interaction
Mrs. L explains to the robot what the beach feels like. Any time Memo doesn’t understand a response, she repeats herself. Throughout the interaction, she’s growing a bit. Usually, she is the needy one while communicating. In these interactions, Mrs L. and the other participants are no longer people with an impairment. Instead, they grow into the role of the human who tries to help another entity. In this project, we are researching how meaningful communication and interaction between human and robot can be stimulated, by strategies that are focused on narrativity and on the personal stories of the conversation partner.

In 2021 and 2022, HKU, Wintertuin, ArtEZ and the Vrije Universiteit worked together on interactive stories for social robots in healthcare. Together with healthcare centres Vitalis WoonZorg Groep and AxionContinu, methods were explored to let a social robot (the Pepper) engage in meaningful interactions with elderly people who have dementia. Writers Annemieke Dannenberg, Yentl van Stokkum and Max Hermens collaborated with researchers / interaction designers Mike Ligthart (VU) and Jorrit Thijn (HKU) to collectively work on a narrative script for the robot to enact while interacting with a human.