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Prolegomena to Social Robotics: Philosophical Inquiries into Perspectives on Human-Robot Interaction

Research output: Book/anthology/dissertation/reportPh.D. thesisResearch

We have begun to use robots in central areas of our lives, from health care to warfare, from education to entertainment—for tasks that we humans cannot perform and tasks that we simply do not wish to perform. This prospect challenges our values and cultural self-understanding. Public debate and some incipient philosophical inquiries have been directed to ethical questions pertaining to the particularities of first applications. In these first public and academic explorations of the nature of human-robot interaction in the ‘Western’ discussion context, certain fundamental tenets are presupposed. The aim of this dissertation is to analyze and question these basic assumptions by means of contrasts and extensions to explore the space of possible conceptions of human-robot relationships.

This dissertation does not treat the question of what a robot is as such—almost all high-tech devices could qualify as a robot in some sense, depending on the definitions used. Nor does it aim to do applied ethics, although it is framed in the setting of ethics here. Its main research objective is to pose the question of how we should conceive of ourselves and our interactions with robots from a metaphilosophical perspective, engaging the reader in reflections on how philosophical theories themselves are built. The ‘problem’ of sociable robots entering our societies is a unique occasion to reconsider the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of our ethical debate. In order to reach a foundational level and present relevant metaphilosophical considerations, the philosophical investigations undertaken in this dissertation are conducted in an ‘intercultural’ perspective, contrasting ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ traditions of philosophy to inquire constructively into human-robot interaction.

The dissertation consists of four essays, which are written for independent publication but are topically strongly interrelated. Each essay challenges our conceptualizations with respect to robots from a different perspective, bringing into focus four central issues of the current debate. The first essay addresses the foundational assumptions of classificatory knowledge, presenting a new angle on the problem of discrimination. The second essay traces public worries about human degradation to the philosophical foundations of public conceptions of freedom and human dignity; it discusses the dialectics of ‘lordship and bondage’ and points to a way in which we can transcend the Hegelian dilemma of recognition. The third essay is a phenomenological investigation of how and why human-robot relationships call for a new approach to the typology of human-technology relationships as these are so far worked out in Western philosophy of technology. Finally, the fourth essay explores the conceptual context of our emotional response to robots as ‘uncanny’, discussing whether robots could be attributed the same interactive potential as works of art.

What these essays clearly indicate is that robots are not as easily categorized as commonly assumed. In addition, they point towards new and alternative ways of conceiving of ourselves in relation to robots. By engaging an unusual constellation of authors and traditions, ranging from Hegel and Heidegger to Nishida, Dōgen, and Mori, from Western philosophy of technology to Buddhism and Shintō, the dissertation aims to illustrate the theoretical value of ‘intercultural philosophy of technology,’ as well as its potential practical implications for concrete design considerations of sociable robots and general attitudinal shifts in human-robot interaction.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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