Robots and Autism

“Social interaction and communication are central features of human sociality, but could machines be social? And what of those diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions(ASC)? What kinds of lifeworlds emerge for those who struggle to grasp the complexity of social interaction? How do these different ontologies influence identity, language and thought? This research investigates these themes by examining the making of therapeutic robots for the treatment of those with ASC”.

These are the kinds of questions I addressed during my British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship (2009-2012) that I held at the Department of Anthropology, University College London. I carried out fieldwork in the UK and the USA and even carried out an experiment to test if robots could be useful to help children with autism spectrum conditions improve their social behaviours. This study I carried out using the robot Kapsar, provided by the team at the University of Hertfordshire. The work from this study is being developed for a book on robots and autism. Machine metaphors of the self are so common in contemporary society, and all the human aspects of self are described in machine terms. Our machines are even becoming ‘social’ and contemporary knowledge is reduced to the machine.

My British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship manuscript is about the role of mechanical and thing-like intermediaries that can transport social and non-social meanings. I am primarily focused on the role of intermediaries in social interactions. How these meanings are understood in specific contexts and how autism as a condition is developed as a means to understand how these intermediate relations develop between persons and things. In this case, between robots, mechanical entities, a toy crane and human persons with autism spectrum conditions. My forthcoming book from this research explores these different issues, with a specific focus on sociable, socially assistive and therapeutic robotics and technologies. Do these robotic artefacts and persons need us to reassess categories of the social? It will be an anthropological analysis of how issues of sociality and asociality are explored and addressed by roboticists who make therapeutic robots and those with ASC who use and interact with them.

I became interested in robotics and social-communication difficulties while I was conducting my doctoral fieldwork in robotic labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I noticed that studies of disability, illness and difference were drawn on by these robotic researchers when they were making their humanoid robots. These researchers began to explore if autism might give robotists an insight into the ‘mind’ of a robot. Have a look at this paper Implementing Models of Autism with a Humanoid Robot. The growing popularity of the ‘social’ robot (a robot who has a primary function to be socially interactive), meant that roboticists began to ask questions about what is and what is not social. I am interested in how we culturally make decisions about what is considered social. Are we really able to agree that a machine is ‘social’ because it has a face and can perform some interactive behaviours? I view contemporary robotics as an extension of the making of automaton, mechanical puppets that rely on performance based rituals of social interaction. Many roboticists are working out theories about human-human interaction and trying to import these ideas into the machines they make, for example, roboticists draw on studies eye-gaze, turn-taking in conversation or physical proximity cues and try to mimic these behaviours in machines. I think these issues are of profound contemporary importance because the machine is imbued with all kinds of beliefs about its potential to reshape and support human life and existence.

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