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Africana Studies Program's new robot combines humanities and technology

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Sally Lugo | The Daily Wildcat

Dr. Bryan Carter is an Assistant Professor for the Africana Studies program at the University of Arizona. He was one of the people involved in the purchase od the high tech Temi Robot to act an assistant in the program.

The Africana Studies Program acquired an unusual new "employee": a robot that acts as a moving informational billboard and assistant. Members of the program said their hope is that the robot helps to normalize technological innovation while directing traffic to the Africana Studies Program. 

The robot is a Temi Robot that was purchased by the program for a little under $2,000. According to the Temi website, the robot sports 3D mapping, 360 degrees LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), 2 depth cameras and 5 proximity sensors, among many other specs. 

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Bryan Carter, Ph.D., associate professor of Africana Studies and director of the Center for Digital Humanities, explained the reasoning behind the purchase. 

“Africana Studies is trying to be at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, things dealing with digital Africana Studies," Carter said. "We’re trying to nimbly revise or create new courses that are relevant and of interest to students.” 

The importance of creating a relationship between technology and cultural studies proved to be a fundamental reason for the new robot. 

“Even the classes I teach where I use 360 video or immersive technologies like virtual reality or augmented reality, you might say, 'why?', but then when you begin to think about how those technologies are typically not associated with a cultural studies program, it really does begin to help us rethink how we understand culture through normalizing these technologies," Carter said.

Carter dismissed the thought that any part of the reasoning for the robot was to replace the job of a human secretary. 

“It shouldn’t be conceived that this is an attempt to replace workers or anything like that," Carter said. "We’re not that naive to consider that any type of AI or personal assistant could do that in the near future or that we would ever want that.” 

The Temi Robot is just another example of the growing influence technology has on education, business and everyday life. Temi can also be used as a personal assistant at home where it can be used for a wide range of tasks like playing music, using the internet or video calls. 

As of now, the robot can only navigate one floor of the building. With the use of its sensors, the robot can find any programmed location on its own. Tech Core, a team of software developers out of the Eller College of Management, started to work with the robot late last week. 

Together, Tech Core and Carter are working on a way for the robot to be able to help students schedule appointments, find professors' offices and even allow students to talk to professors when they’re not in their offices. Carter also said he hopes to use the robot to broadcast live from Paris when the Africana Studies Program hosts their study abroad trip there. 

The executive director of Tech Core, Ash Black, spoke about how the robot could drive traffic into the program. “Many people are just naturally drawn to technology, it’s just the nature of the tech world," he said. 

Black and his colleagues, lead virtual reality developer Devon Oberdan and coder Tim Lukau, agreed that the juxtaposition between technology and a humanities program would turn some heads. 

Black spoke more about another piece of Carter’s vision: normalizing technology. 

“If you think about it, that is a huge emerging, important space where humanities are really going to come surging back to the forefront in the tech world," Black said. "I’m sure of it.” 

Communication with a robot such as this is itself an example of an introspective look into human behavior. Something that humanities programs are endeavoring to understand, “Where you have a robot in your house that you’re speaking with, having a relationship with, that’s the forefront of technology, and it’s coming full circle back into the humanities and social sciences,” Black said. 

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Black also commented on the replacement of human workers. 

“It’s not that we really need to replace people, it’s more that technology is capable of being used in ways that haven’t been experimented with yet," he said. " But we have the opportunity, the skills and the gear to play around in that space and I think it's probably a lot of what’s driving Carter’s interest and is certainly driving our interest.” 

Continuing, he said, “It creates a lens, a way of looking at human behavior by interacting with a machine that is trying to be human,” Black said. 


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