Friday, 22 July 2011

When Sociologists Met the Robots

Steve Fuller has recently completed an ESRC-funded research project on mimetic factors and individual behaviour and, as part of this, took a team of researchers to the Bristol Robotics Lab, where they examined first-hand how robots imitate each other’s behaviour:

I agree with Fuller's comment about robotics remaining largely unexplored by social scientists. Indeed, it's been some years since I last looked at the final chapter of Randall Collins's Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology, entitled "Can Sociology Create an Artificial Intelligence?" His theory of interaction ritual chains is still occasionally being taken up though to come to terms with the possible differences between "social robots" and other robots and social interaction systems (if the link doesn't work, google "Romancing the Robots" + "Randall Collins").

Not clear to me yet if Fuller will be considering these issues in the upcoming Humanity 2.0; I'm curious as well about whether he'll be debating David Noble's The Religion of Technology or attempting to contextualize his arguments by referring to the so-called "democratic transhumanist" movement.

I am of the opinion that there is also scope for social scientists to become more involved in the relatively new field of space medicine- which has been referred to as "medical sociology in space" by astrosociologists. Within the confines of a space station or other vessels, it would appear that the researcher is afforded a unique opportunity, given the lack of outside distractions, to focus on the intense interaction of astronauts with a limited range of artificial systems, as well as with their fellow crew-members. Another theoretical perspective of possible relevance in this context, albeit in need of supplementation, might be the "post social", as developed by Karin Knorr Cetina and others. Furthermore, Giddens's work on "critical situations" could prove valuable when considering alternative social structures in a vacuum. The relevant questions in such instances are the following: what kind of learning processes do they facilitate? How do they go wrong? Can they be generalized across different settings, and if so, what are the implications?


shalini said...

That is really a great thing. This would increase the comments posted on the blogs.

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Steve Fuller said...

Neil, please send me an e-mail. I'd like to make contact, and the e-mail address I've got keeps bouncing back.

Steve Fuller