Robot Futures Vision and Touch in Robotics

If you’re in London in early July, I think you should go to the Robot Futures: Vision and Touch in Robotics event just next to the Science Museum, organised by Luci Eldridge and Nina Trivedi.

The blurb:

This symposium brings together engineers, scientists, cultural theorists and artists who work in the field of robotics to explore notions of embodiment, telepresence and virtual and augmented realities.

Humans are embodied in robotic explorers; endowing them with ‘eyes’ and ‘hands’ robots are able to relate perceptions and experiences of places and objects physically unavailable to us. Although such robots might not ‘look’ human, it is the desire to see stereoscopically, and to feel through all the senses that endow robots with anthropomorphic qualities; we see and feel through the robot. In this way robots enable a more embodied experience, which is nonetheless mediated. It is in the development of virtual reality technologies that is increasingly enabling us to see and feel as the robot in order to get us closer to a more immersive experience.


I’m interested in it if only because of all the ongoing current debates about robots and automation generally (and we’ll get to see a demonstration of Robot De Niro). I learnt two interesting things about robots in Singapore last summer, during a talk by (I think) Colin Garvey.  First, he observed that fears about artificial intelligence becoming autonomous and robots taking over (the so-called ‘singularity’) are cyclical.  Something similar happened in the late 1960s and late 1980s – so perhaps this fear somehow gives expression to a wider sense of social and political unease or uncertainty.  And, second, that in the Japanese Shinto tradition, objects are respected in themselves – and that in Japan there is relatively little fear of robots.

But I’m also going because Ian Bogost’s (2012) book Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to be a Thing is echoing round in my mind.  Although ‘object-oriented ontology’ (OOO) describes a serious philosophical project to rethink ‘things’ and materials for what they are, rather than how we relate to them, I like Bogost’s take on this mainly because it’s good fun. And once you get a broad handle on what he and other ‘speculative realists’ are arguing, you start noticing that objects have moved centre-stage across all sorts of fields of thinking- and in popular culture too.  It’s one of those ‘of course, why didn’t I notice that before?’ moments.

So what’s it like to be a non-human entity/thing/object/unit?  How does a radio relate to the piece of toast that somebody places on top of it?  From the perspective of smoke, what does smoke have to say about being bubbled through water?  How should we conceptualise an electron’s day-to-day business if we take human understanding out of the equation?  Bogost quotes Latour’s (1993 :194) well-known quip: “if you are mixed up with trees, how do you know they are not using you to achieve their dark designs?”  He acknowledges that any attempt on our behalf to answer such questions can only ever be anthropomorphic – and yet we might at times be able to come at least to a sort of metaphorical understanding.  So, we might be able to talk, for example, about “what it’s like to be Foveon digital sensor, even if this isn’t what it is to be one” (Bogost, 2012: 72).

And what’s it like to be a robot?  What’s going on when we are allowed to see and feel through a robot, which is itself made – to some extent – in our image?  Some nice questions in there to think about.

Programme and tickets for Saturday 8 July are here:


London, 3 June 2017



Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Latour, B. (1993). The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.