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Making robots real (with help from Latour)

Cultural robotics needs a theory to account for the ways technological problems, such as robotics, are constantly defined, redefined and distributed across society. Robotics is already embedded in a social history of technology, drawing on black-boxed elements from technological legacies that deal with the problems of propulsion and control — how to get things to move, and move in the right direction. Robotics opens up at least one other question — autonomy — how to get things to move by themselves, and stay in control.

Making autonomous robots function in the wild is a long term project for developers of robots that is likely to end up somewhere completely different from where we can imagine today. It will involve  many kinds of translations:  enrolments of new actors and groups; development of new actors, and constant adjustments to the projects of robotics. It is likely that the ‘robots’ that emerge will be quite different from anything we imagine now.

The story of the development of  technologies of propulsion illustrates the unpredictable twisted series of translations, attachments and stabilisations that technological innovations tend to follow. Take the example of the diesel engine. In 1893 Rudolph Diesel drew on Carnap’s thermodynamics to design and patent a new design for a very efficient engine (Latour 1987). It used highly compressed, superheated air to ignite the fuel and drive the engine. Of course the design and the patent were not enough to make a working engine. Now Diesel needed to forge alliances with engine manufacturers (MAN), and later, the public, to give the engine existence. And of course he and the engineers had to coax the engine itself to perform, and modify their expectations (such as changing the types of fuel it would use, and increasing the engine’s size).

In 1897 Diesel releases the engine for other manufacturers:

At first, Diesel thinks it does not have to be transformed at all: it works. Just buy the licence, pay the royalty, and we send you blueprints, a few engineers to help you, a few mechanics to tend the engine, and if you are not satisfied you get your money back! In Diesel’s hands he engine is a closed black box… simply waiting to be borrowed…

However, this was not the opinion of the firm that had bought the prototypes. They wished it to be unproblematic, but the engine kept on faltering, stalling, breaking apart. Instead of remaining closed, the black box fell open, and had to be overhauled every day by puzzled mechanics and engineers arguing with each other… One after the other, the licensees returned the prototypes to Diesel and asked for their money back. Diesel went bankrupt and had a nervous breakdown. (106)

It isn’t until his design is out of patent around 1908 that the work of MAN engineers, beyond Diesel’s control, produces an engine design that could persuade others to adopt it, and adapt it further for other applications.

What I find convincing about Latour’s approach to technological change is that it privileges neither technical features (an engine’s design or the ingenuity of a new robot) nor social determinants (the desire for an efficient engine, the need for senior care in Japan or the military’s need for autonomous soldiers). Instead, at all stages in the social life of any technology, it remains open to negotiation on many different levels. It exists only through the ongoing action of many actors, human and non-human. The actors might regularly change (such as the nostalgic engine buffs who preserve the ongoing existence of the engine in the video below), and the meanings are translated (from work to leisure).

The current state of robotics overall seems to resemble the condition of the diesel engine before 1908.  Not only are many robot prototypes unconvincing in performing tasks they purport to be able to achieve, but, even worse, many robotic projects seem unconvincing in defining what they aim to achieve at all. As Latour observes, new technical actors must be securely attached to more established actors. The emergence of robotics will not mean that inventions are diffusing through society, but that robotics are enrolled into existing assemblages, and translated into enduring networks.

While the development of the industry is patchy (Everything Robotic), it seems that robotics is accumulating heterogeneous connections that are making it increasingly real, in Latour’s terms. The number of robotic actors (components, competencies) is growing. Robotics are rapidly being translated into entertainment (ABI Research), the military (Singer 2009), education (LEGO Mindstorms) and other domains. Among these forthcoming translations into future robotics it will be interesting to see the unanticipated emerge.

A diesel engine attached to nostalgia: Deutz Mah 716 Bj 1938 Kaltstart Mit Zündfix


Latour, B. (1988). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Harvard University Press.

Categories: Theory
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