A Sociologist as Alien Among Roboticists?

Last week (March, 11-13th), the EU-Robotics Forum 2015 took place in Vienna. During this annual event, researchers, engineers, managers, entrepreneurs and business people from all over Europe came together to discuss topics and contents which “have an immediate impact on the roadmapping process for Robotics in Europe”. Since Social Robotics is one of my research topics, I had the pleasure to present a talk at the Workshop on Robots’ Social Intelligence and Natural Interaction Capabilities with End User Development.

Aibo robot dogs playing with balls
Aibo ERS-7“ by NonNobis, licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Even though I am really happy to be meeting people working in the field of social robotics, I always feel like a stranger among these researchers from various disciplines (i.e. psychology, neuro sciences, computer science, and mechanical engineering). The main reason for this feeling of alienness (rather than alterity; which is admittedly the very reverse of my sociological credo, see below) is that it’s only me (I suppose) who feels rather uncomfortable with ascribing social competence or social intelligence, in a word: sociality to technical artefacts – even to such advanced technology as social robots are or may be in the future. To remain true to myself (i.e. to understand myself not as an alien) and to put my idea across, I’ll try to explain (as I do at conferences on robotics) why I restrain myself from extending the concept of sociality to human relationships with technical artefacts (While saying that, I am convinced that social robots and/or artificial companions will increase in attractiveness for humans in modern societies. This is the topic of my inaugural lecture March 25th at the University of Vienna).

From my – sociology-of-knowledge-oriented – point of view, the question arises as to how to conceptualize the integration of technical artefacts into sociality. I suggest that the theoretical construct “objectivation” is key to understanding the significance of technology in and for sociality. Moreover, I suggest to understand robots analytically as an institution.

On the sociality of social robots from a sociology-of-knowledge perspective

When it comes to social robots, approaches that assume “sociality with objects” appear to be particularly plausible. Their plausibility is due to the fact that designers ascribe characteristics to robots such as the ability to interact and communicate and to form social relationships and bonds constituting reciprocity, which is inherent in sociality.

However, it is not simply the fact that an encounter is experienced as social, but rather the continual confirmation of the intersubjectivity of the life-world, that makes a relation social. Processes of mirroring, role taking, and reciprocity are important in this regard. The experience of the robot as an other is thus rendered questionable – not in principle but in performative practice, which is characterized by duration.

Sociality – concepts of the other 

Within sociology, two models of the other and the problem of the other’s accessibility are proposed; the systems theory model of double contingency and the sociology-of-knowledge model of intersubjectivity:

The sociology-of-knowledge concept imputes that the other is “like me, capable of thinking and acting”. In contrast to this “idealization of similarity”, the systems theory model is based on the “idealization of difference”. It conceives of the other as “alien” and therefore not really comprehensible.

Two Paro therapeutic robot seals
Paro robot“ by Aaron Biggs, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The sociology-of-knowledge concept of “alterity” (rather than alienness) postulates that approximate understanding is possible because ego and alter, being under pressure to act, bracket each other’s alienness – at least temporarily. Under this model, the simultaneity of ego and alter’s streams of consciousness is deemed to be the basis for the coordination of interaction.

In the double contingency model, the postulated basis for the coordination of interaction is the simultaneity of the experience of alienness, which is compensated by communication, in the sense of the selection of meaning. In this model, methodologically and empirically the figure of the “third actor”, a non-participating external observer, becomes important. And ego and alter are not viewed as actors who act in a meaningful way, but as material bodies and “black boxes”.

Objectivation (rather than objects) as part of sociality

The intersubjectivity model, by contrast, is based on the notion that people in social situations continuously and reciprocally produce, interpret, and negotiate meanings. Sociality comprises the other, the acting self, and a third element. This “third party” is referred to as “objectivation”, that is, “the aspect of operational action that can be experienced in a common environment”.

From the sociology-of-knowledge perspective, technical objects such as robots are objectivated – that is materialized, and therefore lasting – subjective meaning. Technical artefacts are neither humans’ counterparts in social relationships, nor are they a meaningless medium. Rather, they are carriers of meaning. From this perspective, especially so-called “social (intelligent) robots” continuously carry meaning between social persons who communicate and interact; and they are also carriers of meaning between the designer and the user.

Technology as institution

In the sense that they always imply a certain way of dealing with them that is considered expedient and appropriate, social robots are institutions. An institution not only regulates how an activity is typically carried out but also which actors participate in the execution of these activities. Robotics brings forth institutions that “regulate steps to be taken with regard to certain objects and give them a predictable form” (Knoblauch).

In this regard, Kerstin Dautenhahn’s analysis of the two main paradigms underlying “socially intelligent” robots is particularly instructive. Under the “caretaker paradigm”, humans take care of robots and learn social behavior in the process. The “companion paradigm”, by contrast, regards robots as caretakers who respond to humans’ needs. Hence, the norming character of this technology as an institution seems to be inversely proportional to its sophistication. In the caretaker paradigm humans are required to adapt to the robot, whereas the companion paradigm holds out the prospect of a technology that can adequately adapt to human idiosyncrasies and relevancies.

Sociology of knowledge: a change of perspective

The sociology-of-knowledge approach constitutes a change of perspective. Attention is shifted away from the question of what robots do – namely, communicate and interact. The focus is directed towards the question of what humans do with robots when we incorporate them into our activities. Of particular interest here are a) the meanings which are objectified in technical artefacts, b) the meanings that users associate with these technical artefacts by using them and c) the importance which materiality gains via institutionalization.


Profile picture of Michaela PfadenhauerMichaela Pfadenhauer is a professor of sociology (knowledge and culture) at the University of Vienna with special research interests in social and communicative constructivism, mediatized worlds, artificial companion technology and phenomenology-based ethnography. She is a member of the board of the German Sociological Association and currently organizing a research stream ‘The New Sociology of Knowledge’ at the ESA Conference 2015 in Prague.

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