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    Producing Humans: An Anthropology of Social and Cognitive Robots

    Veling, Louise (2022) Producing Humans: An Anthropology of Social and Cognitive Robots. PhD thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth.

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    In this thesis, I ask how the human is produced in robotics research, focussing specifically on the work that is done to create humanoid robots that exhibit social and intelligent behaviour. Robots, like other technologies, are often presented as the result of the systematic application of progressive scientific knowledge over time, and thus emerging as inevitable, ahistorical, and a-territorial entities. However, as we shall see, the robot’s existence as a recognisable whole, as well as the various ways in which researchers attempt to shape, animate and imbue it ‘human-like’ qualities, is in fact the result of specific events, in specific geographical and cultural locations. Through an ethnographic investigation of the sites in which robotics research takes place, I describe and analyse how, in robotics research, robotics researchers are reflecting, reproducing, producing, and sometimes challenging, core assumptions about what it means to be human. The dissertation draws on three and a half years of ethnographic research across a number of robotics research laboratories and field sites in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States between April 2016 and December 2019. It also includes an investigation of the sites where robotics knowledge is disseminated and evaluated, such as conferences and field test sites. Through a combination of participant and non-participant observation, interviews, and textual analysis, I explore how the robot reveals assumptions about the human, revealing both individual, localised engineering cultures, as well as wider Euro-American imaginaries. In this dissertation, I build on existing ethnographies of laboratory work and technological production, which investigate scientific laboratories as cultural sites. I also contribute to contemporary debates in anthropology and posthumanist theory, which question the foundational assumptions of humanism. While contemporary scholarship has attempted to move beyond the nature/culture binary by articulating a multitude of reconfigurations and boundary negotiations, I argue that this is done by neglecting the body. In order to address this gap, I bring together two complementary conceptual devices. First, I employ the embodiment philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2012; 1968) particularly his emphasis on the body as a site of knowing the world. Second, I use the core anthropological concept of the ‘fetish’ as elaborated by William Pietz (1985). By interrogating the robot as ‘fetish’, I elaborate how the robot is simultaneously a territorialised, historicised, personalised, and reified object. This facilitates an exploration of the disparate, and often contradictory nature, of the relations between people and objects. In my thesis, I find many boundary reconfigurations and dissolutions between the human and the robot. However, deviating from the relational ontology dominant in the anthropology of technology, I discover an enduring asymmetry between the human and the robot, with the living body emerging as a durable category that cannot be reasoned away. Thus, my thesis questions how the existing literature might obscure important questions about the category of the human by focusing disproportionately on the blurring and/or blurred nature of human/non-human boundaries. Ultimately, I argue for a collaborative and emergent configuration of the human, and its relationship with the world, that is at once both relational and embodied. This dissertation is structured as follows. An initial introductory chapter is followed by a chapter documenting the literature review and conceptual framework. This is followed by four chapters that correspond to the four aspects of the fetish in Pietz’s model: Historicisation, Territorialisation, Reification and Personalisation. These chapters alternate between scholarly sources and ethnographic data. In Historicisation, using existing scholarship, I trace the history of the robot object, including the continuities and discontinuities that led to its creation, as well as the futures that are implicated in its identity. This is followed by the Territorialisation chapter, in which ethnographic data is used to interrogate the robot’s materiality, as well as the spaces in which it is built, modified, and tested. The next chapter, Reification, considers the robot as a valuable object according to institutions and the productive and ideological systems of Euro-American imaginaries. This chapter integrates ethnographic detail with existing scholarship to focus on contrasts between the dominant image of imminent super-human intelligence and the human interventions and social relationships necessary to produce the illusion of robot autonomy. Finally, the chapter Personalisation brings ethnographic attention to the intensely personal way that the robot-as-fetish is experienced in an encounter with an embodied person, understood through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s embodiment philosophy. In the final chapter, I draw together the various strands to articulate how understanding the robot as a fetish, underscored by Merleau-Ponty’s embodiment phenomenology, can provide useful resources for developing an alternative understanding of the human in anthropology without dissolving it all together.

    Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
    Keywords: Producing Humans; Anthropology; Social and Cognitive Robots;
    Academic Unit: Faculty of Social Sciences > Anthropology
    Item ID: 16031
    Depositing User: IR eTheses
    Date Deposited: 31 May 2022 15:13
      Use Licence: This item is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike Licence (CC BY-NC-SA). Details of this licence are available here

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