Digital Humanities meets Robotic Humanities « Following Robots

Digital Humanities meets Robotic Humanities « Following Robots.

(author Chris Chesher : University of Sydney)

On Friday December 10, I suggested a new term for our field of research: Robotic Humanities, the deployment of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences traditions in field of robotics (see my slides). Of course this Robot/Arts intersection is not new at all, as Simon Penny will talk about this Friday.

Robotic Humanities was a term of abuse that critical theorist Theodor Adorno used describe the Analytic Philosophy, which started to dominate US philosophy in early chill of the cold war. He argued that robots could be taught to do this kind of philosophy. Adorno’s hostility marked a historic point as the division between narrative / critical and formal / logical traditions became stronger. The division persists in the Humanities today, making Robotic Humanities unlikely. A version of this divide persists in the differences between Humanities and Mechatronic approaches to robotics. Some differences may never be resolved: epistemological understandings about empiricism, quantification and history; political differences about social and institutional power; ethical differences about instrumentalism; aesthetic differences and , and so on.

Nam June Paik works on the Robot K-456 

Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456

In a shifting cultural terrain, these (apparently) irresolvable differences may actually be a basis for innovative collaborations. A range of Arts, Humanities and Social Science traditions have prima facie efficacy to build connections with robotic research: media, technology studies, performance studies, writing, media arts, philosophy, archaeology, ethnography and so on (see table below). My hunch is that the historical divergence of two broad traditions has created blind-spots in each that leave many problems unexplored. If robots is increasingly present in everyday life, Humanities traditions will be important in negotiating their cultural introduction.

The motivation for mobilising the term ‘Robotic Humanities’ was an invitation to speak at an event ‘Digital Editing, Digital Humanities’, organised by Mark Byron, a colleague in the English Department. Digital Humanities is a relatively new name for an expanded version of quite an old tradition of using digital technologies in literary scholarship. Such work includes literary scholars analysing stylistic patterns algorithmically to discover patterns in the words in a certain author’s work. Others scan in notebooks of great writers, marking up the author’s corrections and annotations to create digital editions. The best of this work finds biographical and creative insights through this process. For example, Margaret Webby presented an analysis of Patrick White’s notebooks to show a direct link between White’s criticisms on seeing Ray Lawler’s play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (which he describes as banal) and new confronting scenes he wrote for his own play The Ham Funeral.

I can’t imagine that Robotic Humanities will employ robots to conduct humanities research directly (although I can see robots involved in surveillant social science studies). Rather, Humanities researchers have competencies that may support collaborations with engineers, independent uses of robotic technologies, or critical attention to the practices of research and deployment of robotic technologies.

Humanities Discipline Examples of discipline’s relationship to robotics
Design Interface design; hardware design
Media Practice Draw on media practice expertise and media criticism in robotics
Technology Studies Historical and observational studies of human-robot relations, etc
Ethnography Thick description of robotic research and development promise to offer thick descriptions of the cultural practices around engineering of artefacts that have increasingly intimate relationships to people
Performance Studies Understand staging robotic of presence, interaction and (in robotics parlance) ‘emotion’
Writing Dialogue; interface; scripting
Media Arts There is already a significant history in robotic art such as Nam June Paik’s  (1965) Robot K-456 or Simon Penny’s Petit Mal (2006)
Philosophy Ethics; ontology
Archaeology Robotic archaeologists scan, sites( )


Margaret Harris and Elizabeth Webby, ‘Patrick White’s Papers’, Australian Book Review, December 2010, pp. 62-4.

Lemahieu, M., 2002. Postwar Philosophies, Robotic Humanities. CLIO, 32(1), pp.51–61.

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