An elderly man was in the queue in the newspaper shop in a busy London station. Seeing that there was a long wait, a shop assistant suggested that the man use the self-service check-out where there was no queue. “Goodness Gracious no!” the elderly man replied “I will not talk to robots”.
This story, shared widely on Facebook, might be comical and apocryphal, but it raised an important point for me. It made me realise that robots are indeed amongst us. But rather than being little humanoid characters that steer our space-ships or even do our housework, their most familiar cry is “unexpected item in the bagging area”. So what happened to science’s dreams of robots bringing us a better, labour-saving future? And does it matter that such high aspirations have produced something so mundane – and perhaps annoying? Should we be less concerned about ‘rights for robots’ (as Nature magazine has argued as recently as March 2015 than just how disappointing they are?
Authors in my field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) have written about how imaginaries of science and technologies play a role in shaping the development of these technologies – and in shaping our worlds too (Jasanoff & Kim, 2009, 2015). These sociotechnical imaginaries also help to make the case for ongoing investment in science and technology, and, at the same time advances in science and technology help demonstrate how the state (in investing in technology) is acting for the public good (Jasanoff and Kim 2009).
Given how these imaginaries help scientists and engineers build support, attract resources and interest, Mike Michael (in Brown, Rappert, & Webster, 2000) argues that promises of technologies become inflated in order to get attention, especially in the early stages of technological development. When the mundane nature of the reality of the technologies comes to light however, the early hype eventually gives way to disillusionment (Nik Brown & Michael, 2003). Arguably this is what has happened with our robots. Rather than producing life-changing applications, technologies which were once imagined to be great – and into which considerable amounts of public money have been invested – now manifest themselves in our lives as ways for large corporations to increase profit by pushing the customer into unpaid labour. While other, more life-enhancing, applications might come along in the future, the risk is that our understanding of what robots are will be forever changed, based on our experience with these more modest versions.
So are we destined to be disappointed with robots and could this lead to a wider disillusionment with science and technology’s power to improve our lives? In his book ‘Our Robots, Ourselves – robotics and the myth of autonomy’ (Mindell, 2015) MIT STS Professor David Mindell argues not. Having spent years working on undersea robotics and looking at military applications, he concludes that the aspiration of fully autonomous robots is both unrealistic and undesirable. He describes how soldiers in the field, looking at autonomous helicopters, reported that they want to work with equipment that is predictable and with a fixed pattern of behaviour, rather than a machine with ‘a mind of its own’. As a result, ‘behaviours’ of robots had to be reduced dramatically, such that they were at best semi-autonomous. And you could imagine this idea working more widely – in self driving cars, for instance. While it would be amazing to hand over control of the car to a machine as you’re cruising down a sun-drenched highway, do you really want a teenage programmer in Seattle to have decided how your car reacts when a cat runs out when you’re driving on a foggy, icy lane? Mindell believes that we don’t. Rather than thinking of anything but fully-autonomous robots as disappointing, he argues that we should be aiming for what he calls ‘a perfect five’ – the sweet-spot somewhere midway between full autonomy and fully-operated robots. In other words, the kind of world human beings really want is not the same as our science fiction fantasies. And that this human world is more likely to be fulfilled by creating less autonomous and more mundane robots.
This might be a very practical and real world adjustment of technological aspirations. But it still leaves a big question for science – what do people expect from robotics and what happens when they realise the mundane nature of these machines? Back in 2007, I was involved in a series of public dialogue events in the UK called ScienceHorizons, which specifically discussed robotics. The robotics researchers who presented their science at these events had to spend considerable time explaining to the public participants that robots were not, nor likely to be, humanoid characters. Nevertheless, participants were enthusiastic about the idea of such characters helping with household chores and continued to express concerns that robots might have quasi-human emotions and intellect. On one hand, these concerns seem to be expressing a desire for Mindell’s ‘perfect five’ of semi-autonomous robots. On the other hand, they are perhaps belying a far more ambitions dream of the potential of robots – as machines that can learn, interact and help us live more fulfilling lives.
And that last point is perhaps the most important. Because it brings into sharp focus a real-world enactment of the STS concept of coproduction – that natural and social orders are produced together (Jasanoff, 2004). In creating robots we are creating a particular kind of world. The elderly man’s view of a robot as a shoddy human replacement, my disappointment in the mundaneness of the self-scan machines and the resilience of the aspirations of the participants in the dialogue in the face of scientists attempts to modify their expectations, represent three public views of robots. And underlying these views, there appears to be a disappointment in the kind of world produced by the boring robots as much as a disappointment in the machines themselves. And this should be of concern to scientists and engineers, because the collective visions of good and attainable futures that science and technology helps us create are not just serving to shape science, but they also serve to legitimate it too. So if people are disappointed with the kind of world that rubbish robots help make, we shouldn’t be surprised if one day, they are disappointed with science too.
Brown, N., & Michael, M. (2003). A Sociology of Expectations: Retrospecting Prospects and Prospecting Retrospects. Goldsmiths Research Online, 15(1), 3– 18. Retrieved from http://research.gold.ac.uk/2379/2/SOC_Michael_2003a.pdf
Brown, N., Rappert, B., & Webster, A. (2000). Contested futures: A sociology of prospective techno-science. Ashgate Aldershot, UK:
Jasanoff, S. (2004). States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and the Social Order. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/States-Knowledge-Co-production-International-Sociology/dp/0415403294
Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S.-H. (2009). Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva, 47(2), 119–146. doi:10.1007/s11024-009-9124-4
Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S.-H. (2015). Dreamscapes of Modernity: SOCIOTECHNICAL IMAGINARIES AND THE FABRICATION OF POWER. (S. Jasanoff & S.-H. Kim, Eds.). The University of Chicago Press.
Mindell, D. A. (2015). Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy. Viking. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Our-Robots-Ourselves-Robotics-Autonomy/dp/0525426973/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1429574481&sr=8-3&keywords=david+mindell