Social life with robots – paper abstract and ideas

Here is a conference abstract that I’ve recently submitted. As you can see, this is specifically for an audience of sociologists (at least primarily), so I’m working through and around notions of togetherness quite specifically.

Social life with robots

Over the coming decades it looks likely that robots of various types will enter the private and public spaces of our lives. This paper explores some of the sociological implications of the forecast arrival of robots. Starting from the argument that ‘robot’ is an ‘essentially contested concept’ – indeed one entangled with mythologies of AI – I consider robots through their conception to (mostly speculative) implementation. Like all machines and material systems, robots are socio-political artefacts, embroiled in our machine-metaphor engineering; our making the world through social imaginaries shaped by power hierarchies. I suggest work on design sociology and the ethics of invention can help us engage with desires for and designs of robots. We must also consider the ‘material agency’ of robots as algorithmic decision makers, debating the role of automation in/as social organisation, and whether emergent forms of automation are a special case (they likely are, from a certain point of view, but we must avoid technological fatalism). Finally, there are the ‘enveloping’ effects of robots, how the introduction of robots will shape our proximities; our physical interactional closeness, our location within forms of social organisation (hierarchies and inequalities), and the symbolic affectivity that accompanies this, with regard to our sense of belonging, inclusion and exclusion. The robots of the near-future will not be the stuff of science fiction, but there is the potential for them to have a significant societal impact. For this reason they need careful sociological analysis.

At present I’m purposefully leaving this notion of ‘robot’ very open to being contested; certainly by myself in the process of composing and presenting this piece. I suppose my aim here is to work towards a different kind of what might be termed ‘philosophical theology’ when it comes to thinking about togetherness that is neither the bold humanism of so much modern thought nor the ontological flattening is lots of materialist theories.

As you can see from the abstract, I think that the very idea of robots – and I tend to think in terms of ‘general purpose robots’ rather than ‘specific task robotics’ – provides us with an ideal avenue for considering contemporary ethics, justice, politics and design.