I was awarded the NWO Rubicon grant

This week, I received the news that the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) has decided to award me a Rubicon grant, a grant that offers talented researchers who have completed their doctorates in the past year the chance to gain experience at a top research institution outside the Netherlands. The grant enables me to continue my research at Brown University’s Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative, supervised by Professor Bertram Malle. The goal of the research project is to investigate if, when and how people use theory of mind to explain robot behavior. The results will contribute to technology design and policy direction of acceptable robot behavior.


Project Summary

Many emerging applications of robotic technology involve humans and robots in assistive, pedagogical, and collaborative interactions. People interact increasingly with robots that display basic features of intentional agency (e.g., approaching, looking, grasping, listening, speaking, fetching). The question therefore arises how people conceptualize such robot behaviors, in particular, whether they interpret them by way of mental states such as beliefs, desires, intentions, and so on, just as they do for other humans [2]. Such interpretations constitute what is typically referred to as ‘theory of mind’, which is the ability to infer and reason about other people’s mental states [1], [3]. Because robot designers are expected to optimize such sophisticated human-robot interactions, they need to examine how people interpret robot behaviors and determine whether interactions are more acceptable, satisfying, and effective when humans indeed apply their theory of mind to robot behaviors. However, the conditions and functional benefits of this theory of mind in human-robot interactions (HRI) are currently unknown, and detailed insights into the scope and limits of people’s humanlike treatment of robots are needed.

The present research uses the study of behavior explanations —a core component of human social cognition— as a novel technique for examining people’s readiness to infer mental states from robot behavior and to manage a robot’s social standing. Research on theory of mind in the area of human-robot interaction will yield novel insights into the way people explain robot behaviors as compared to human behaviors. Moreover, the results of this research will inform design requirements for robotic systems to optimize social interactions between robots and humans.


[1] Baron-Cohen, S. (1988). Without a theory of mind one cannot participate in a conversation. Cognition, 29, 83–84.

[2] Malle, B.F., and Hodges, S.D. (2005). Other minds: How humans bridge the divide between self and other. Guilford Press: New York, NY, USA.

[3] Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515–526.