Human-machine relationships are being transformed by robots increasingly performing social roles such as teachers, carers and companions. This arrival of social robots is challenging understandings of human-machine relationships and generating diverse aesthetic, ethical and political debates. Matters of interest include asymmetries in human-robot relationships, the co-constitution of humans and robots, the place of robot labour, the significance of machine embodiment, and accounts of human-robot communication, among other topics. Commonly, the ways in which social and cultural norms shape social robotics do not receive enough critical scrutiny.

This special issue of Transformations examines the ways in which human-machine relationships are configured in social robotics. It recognises that contemporary robotics produces and circulates cultural values, and considers how social robots continue and diverge from other expressive and communicative practices. In so doing it tests the scope and limits of the category of social robotics.

As part of this issue we are delighted to launch the ‘Robots for Last Days’ website developed by Marc Böhlen and Tero Karppi at the State University of New York at Buffalo. ‘Robots for Last Days’ is a resource for anyone interested in exploring the discourse on robotic systems designed to accompany people in the last days of their lives. This living database allows you to compare descriptions and perceptions of robots that care or kill from different disciplinary perspectives. From Engineering to Art and News, this resource offers insights into the ongoing discussion of robots and death.

Marc Böhlen and Tero Karppi
The Making of Robot Care
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The health industry is investing in robotics because it has the potential to optimize workflows and reduce the workloads of healthcare professionals. However, these optimizations come at a cost. By looking at three different robot systems and their underlying control architectures, this paper will describe some of the dynamics generated by the migration of computational logic developed for industrial robot systems to the healthcare domain. We combine a reading of robot control systems with perspectives from cultural techniques to uncover dynamics that neither approach can detect independently.

robot control, robot architecture, healthcare, cultural techniques

Thao Phan
The Materiality of the Digital and the Gendered Voice of Siri
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We live, contends Alexander Galloway, in an algorithmic culture. Algorithms are now inescapably embedded into everyday life transforming processes and objects from cultural artefacts into “smart” systems. But unlike most algorithms, which are obscured behind the black box of postindustrial processes, Intelligent Personal Assistant Softwares such as Apple’s Siri are imbued with voice and personality. That is, they are given a materiality and tangibility. This paper aims to interrogate the nature of this materiality, and specifically, the manifestation of the gendered voice. It is my contention that the gendered voice of Siri is symptomatic of the difficulties in performing trust and transparency in what is essentially an intangible process. As Christian Sandvig has argued, transparency and trust are processes that must be seen in order to be believed but the issue with algorithms is that for the most part they can’t be seen. Thus for these “robots,” the performance of human sociality, specifically the use of language, humour, and the presentation of gender are cunning manoeuvres that contribute to the performance of “trust” in the theatre of persuasion. Continuing Sandvig’s trajectory, this research seeks to explore the relationship between gender, sociality, and immediacy in these artificial systems.

Danielle Wong
Dismembered Asian/American Android Parts in Ex Machina as ‘Inorganic’ Critique
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This paper analyses the dismemberment and dispersal of Asian/American android-coolie parts in the sci-fi film Ex Machina (2015) in order to theorise an inorganic critique of the postracial-as-posthuman subject. By turning to Asian/American robot self-dismemberment and the dispersal of their fragments, I address this special issue’s interest in human-robot relationships and social robotics not only by highlighting the historical techno-Orientalist configurations of the Asian labourer as machine, but by considering how the so-called inorganic nature of the robot characterises the circulations of racialised — particularly Asian/American — performance and spectral labour that disrupt white-as-postracial, posthuman futurity. This paper looks at two modes of Asian/American dismemberment in Ex Machina that cause “glitches” in the white social body’s reproductive wholeness: the removable Asian/American face as counter-surveillance and the transferrable nature of Asianness as a proxy (a reiteration of the model minority) that threatens to breach white subjectivity.

David Savat and Christina Chau
Anxious Robots, Desiring Repression, Generating Profit
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Robots are increasingly playing roles in everyday life. These roles range from doing the vacuuming, to assisting in surgery, to stocking shelves, to assisting teaching children with autism, to providing care and entertainment for the elderly. This essay deals less with robots themselves, however, and more with the particular anxieties that surround the use of robots. Critical to our argument is that robots are not separable from human being, just as humans are inseparable from machines. They are better thought of as fragments of human subjectivity that in and of themselves are neither beneficial nor hazardous. Instead we argue, partly through an exploration of the work of Stelarc, that the anxieties around the use of robots reflect an anxiety about the possibility of people’s own machinic nature. The important question to ask, we argue, is how our machines, including robots, affect our own capacity to act, as well as our capacity to be affected. What is at issue is precisely the machines in our own heads, and in particular the production of forms of subjectivity in which we can recognise, or rather fail to recognise, our own becoming robotic, all in the name of capitalism and profit.

Robots; technology; capitalism; assemblage; Stelarc

Jondi Keane and Charles Anderson
Human-Non-Human: the Speculative Robot
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In this paper we explore and unpack the implications and issues arising from our exhibition project Technics and Touch: Body-Matter-Machine, which tested the limits of human and robot proficiencies through a series of experimental scenarios. The project explored methods of producing feedback systems through perception and action cycles. The exhibition consisted of two parallel events: a laboratory space where the artists were “in-residence,” producing drawings in conjunction with the robot; and a procedural drawing exhibition in an adjoining space, where the outcomes of this human/nonhuman team were exhibited alongside the work of practitioners who have been exploring rule-based drawing for some time. The aim was to make and to discuss approaches to embodied, expanded and autonomous intelligent systems. Towards that end, we worked to articulate a range of ideas that emerged from the project: the expanded space of the robot, which includes a complex human-non-human set of relationships that imprint upon the newly created network of the human-non-human (a better if more cumbersome word for the expanded space we currently call “robot”) and, the notion that this expanded space of the “robot” introduces a set of response parameters that were not aimed at duplication or fabrication but at exceeding the critical frameworks that filter and reduce what counts as “real.” This makes the robot-system, Ela, a speculative robot, one that is thoroughly embedded in this process of co-creation.

Stina Hasse Jørgensen and Oliver Tafdrup
Technological Fantasies of Nao – Remarks about Alterity Relations
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In this contribution we investigate how the concept of ‘technological fantasies’ can be utilized to further develop the understanding of human-robot relation as an ‘alterity relation’. Postphenomenology emphasizes how the humanoid robot is constituted as a ‘quasi-other’ in the interaction with humans. The basis of the article is an experiment we conducted at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, involving the humanoid robot Nao as a tour guide. Through interviews with the participants of the robot guided tour, we discuss how technological fantasies of the robot play an active part in the constitution of the alterity relation and thus the experience of the robot as a quasi-other.

Humanoid robots, technological fantasies, sociotechnical imaginaries, postphenomenology, psychoanalysis, critical design

Jaana Parviainen and Jari Pirhonen
Vulnerable Bodies in Human–Robot Interactions: Embodiment as Ethical Issue in Robot Care for the Elderly
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The aim of this paper is to investigate the notion of embodiment in robot technologies for eldercare, drawing on the phenomenology of the body and discussions of practical nursing ethics. Reaching beyond dualistic discourse on aging bodies, we aim to develop a new ethical framework in which lived bodies and embodied care practices play a dominant role in interpreting moral values of human care. Developing further the notion of “materialising morality”, we approach robotcare as an embodied care practice that takes place in the “triangle” between caregivers, care receivers and robotics. Taking seriously the idea that touching is crucial for the wellbeing of elderly people, this paper comes to the conclusion that robots can take care of elderly patients, but they can’t care about them. Robots are not replacements for caregivers, but they might be designed to help caregivers and clients find more profound embodied interactions.

Erika Kerruish
Affective Touch in Social Robots
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Social robotics asks people to be physically and psychologically intimate with robots. Of all the senses, touch is most associated with intimacy and the material qualities of contact readily morph into psychological ones. To see how these intricacies of touch are present but not always fully articulated in research into tactility in social robots, this paper firstly considers two sets of research in tactile robotics, one examining touch in an anthropomorphic robot and the other in an innovative, partially zoomorphic robot. While such research can be criticised for functionalising and quantifying touch, this is not an exhaustive understanding of the incorporation of affective touch in social robotics. Alongside functional and quantifying processes (and not necessarily in opposition to them) are novel and rich imaginative ones, often driven by low-tech materials. These dimensions of affective touch are more often articulated in discussions of robotic, cinematic, tactile and media art that consider the perceptual style of touch to be multivalent, imaginative and mobile. This perspective can contribute to articulating the dynamics of affective touch in social robotics, allowing for the recognition of the importance of the low-tech, material features that are a noteworthy part of touching robots. The ambiguities and indeterminacies of affective touch, messy materialism and the interactivity of affect interweave with high-tech computational practices in generating the experience of touching social robots.