Robots – The New Social-Workers!

The word Robot is taken from the slavic word for work “robota”. The Robot was first imagined as an entity to work. The creator of the robot character, Karel Capek wanted to imagine a being that was devoid of any soul or feelings. Basically a human-like replica that was devoid of any consciousness and made entirely for the function of labour and nothing else. This is where he came up with the robot idea – or his artist brother Josef did. I had associated robots with work of all kinds. In early 2000s when I stared my fieldwork at a robotics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology I was surprised then to find researchers not making ‘worker’ robots but social and companion robots. The idea of a social or companion robot struck me as a real departure from how we think about how technologies – it is really possible create a machine that could be a plausible substitute social companion to humans? What do these new developments say about how we imagine human relations with machines? Are the machines now just a lot smarter that we have no alternative but to grant them some social status?

In my own research I am interested in how the robot as an entity has shifted from one that was focused around the issue of work and particularly as a way to explore the questions about the purpose and meaning of life. The expression ‘I feel like a robot’ to imply I feel mechanical, lifeless and like one is acting out a program is thought as a problematic association. Maybe analogies between self and robots and machines have changed. Sherry Turkle described MIT as ‘a different world’ when she first arrived there in the 1980s. In The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, Turkle writes:

Soon after I arrived at MIT, an incident occurred which captures my shock of recognition that I was in a   different world. In the morning I had worked with a patient in  psychotherapy who, for many months, had been using the image   of ‘being a machine’ to express his feelings of depersonalization, emptiness and despair. That evening, I   went to a party for the new MIT faculty. I met a young woman, a computer-science major and one of my students, who was listening to a heated conversation about whether machines could ever think. She was growing impatient: ‘I don’t see what the problem is – I’m a machine and I think.’ (1984: 328-329)

MIT is an world renowned science and engineering institution so it unsurprising that Turkle found so many students there keen to view the life in mechanistic terms, but if so much effort is put into make social and companion robots, is it because there is a public appetite for them?

These are the kinds of issues that interest me in my studies of anthropology and robotics. Are robots the new social-workers? I think the analogy between social-workers and new trends in robotics is useful because social-workers often intervene in the lives of adults who are thought unable to function, they help fill some ‘social-gap’ that is perceived in a family. So, do we now think of machines and robots as different kinds of cultural entities are capable of filling our perceived social-gaps?


Finally, an issue on the reproduction of the human form. In robotics, the scientists themselves worry that even if they build their machines the public might not accept them. This anxiety is due to a number of reasons, 1) is that in European and American cultural fictions robots are often seen as threatening destroyers (the theme of annihilation and destruction is an important one in narratives of robots). The other issue is to do with the making of copies of the human form, how comfortable would a person be to have a proxy-human form hanging around the kitchen? A way to counteract these fears is that roboticists try to make their robots less threatening by making them child-like and cute (this is why you see so many child-like robots around), or by making them very cartoon and science-fiction like. In my experience, the more human a robot looks, the more it gives spectators ‘the creeps’. There are surprisingly few examples of fully-formed human replicas in our society. In the high-street you might find mannequins and added to this list are statues, portraits, scarecrows, effigies, and a few other forms. When human-like copies are made they are usually reduced in size, such as a doll might be. Dolls were once powerful talismans used for magic and sorcery (and still are in some cultures) but are often associated with children’s playthings. Are there not deep anxieties that accompany the reproduction of the human form and image particularly when this is given a child or adult sized form?


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