We need to talk about Wall-E

According to roboticist Rodney Brooks, the distinction between humans and robots will disappear in the coming decades. Arati Prabhakar, the former head of DARPA, America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says the merging of humans and machines is happening now. If so, are we prepared for such a union? How is the ongoing development and deployment of artificial and social robots bringing change in our lives and societies?

The Anthrobotics Cluster at the University of Edinburgh was created last year to consider these questions from an interdisciplinary perspective, encompassing humanities, social sciences, informatics, robotics, genetics, engineering, law, medicine, science and technology studies. It was initiated by Luis de Miranda, a philosopher and novelist; author of The Art of Freedom in the era of automata, a cultural history of digital devices and our relationship with computers. He has studied the notion of esprit de corps, looking at how we have in the last three centuries conceived of institutions, corporations and organisations in terms of social machines and of humans as robots.

His idea, an echo of philosopher Lewis Mumford’s ‘megamachine’, is that even before digital computers existed, we were ‘anthrobots’, “dynamic and dialectic compounds of humans and protocols”. He said: “To make progress in the new field of social robotics, instead of looking at humans and robots as separated realms, we should start with their intertwined realities and look at anthrobotic ensembles.”

He has worked with Dr Michael Rovatsos and Dr Subramanian Ramamoorthy, of Edinburgh University’s Informatics Forum of the University of Edinburgh, to write a position paper published in the book What Social Robots Can and Should Do. Supported by the university’s Institute for Academic Development, de Miranda organised the first anthrobotics interdisciplinary seminar and reading group, in partnership with the social informatics group run by Edinburgh University research fellow Dr Mark Hartswood.

The cluster has explored questions raised by accelerated developments in artificial intelligence and robotics and fostered a dialogue between the humanities, social sciences, computer science and robotics. One of the outcomes has been a new definition of robots as ‘enablers’, drawing on the ambivalence of the notion of enablement in social psychology; something that can help and facilitate, but also create a dependency and even addiction.

Earlier this week, ahead of ERF 2017, a workshop was held at the university with scholars from European universities exploring the new field of anthrobotics, as well as a public round table on the theme: Are we (Becoming) Anthrobots?, in partnership with robot manufacturer Softbank and Eidyn research center. “We are just at the beginning of our reflection,” said de Miranda. “Now that people are becoming aware that robotic systems are a part of our everyday lives and even our cultural and social identities, we must develop not so much better artificial intelligence, but rather better anthrobotic intelligence; more harmony, pluralism, and understanding in the way we deal with the digital machines that have merged with our lives.”