Research project

Aims and themes of the ‘Following robots’ research project

This project aims to develop a cultural reading of robotics as a new media practice, a major research field and an emerging industry.

The research focuses on three broad questions (see below).

  1. What are the expressive features of interactions between robots, people and environments?
  2. Where are the physical and social spaces for robots?
  3. How is robotics becoming connected into wider networks? (language, media, ethics, economy).

This study will document and analyse meanings and practices in robotics research and development, particularly at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney. This research is the first major step in developing a research relationship between the Digital Cultures Program in the Arts Faculty and the Centre for Social Robotics at the ACFR.

Robotics has grown rapidly over the past two decades, with applications across a range of institutions, from the military to medicine to media arts. Most robotics research is necessarily in engineering disciplines, but interdisciplinary research is becoming more common and successful. For example, Mari Velonaki Co-director of the CSR, and ARC ARF/QEII Research Fellow, is a new media artist who has collaboration with with the other co-Director, David Rye, and other roboticists at the ACFR.

The main method I will use in this study is ethnographic: observing and documenting researchers working on robotics projects at the AFCR. This method will observe both ‘science in the making’ in the lab, when problems are yet to be resolved, and ‘ready-made science’ (Latour 1988: 4), when robotic artifacts are presented as finished devices. I will adapt Bruno Latour’s approach by ‘following’ roboticists around the lab to see how their activities accumulate the ‘actors’ that make robots real.

I will also made brief visits to the Robotworld expo in Korea in October 2010. The Expo allowed me to see the ‘ready-made’ science of black-boxed robotics.

As well as the observation work, I will conduct interviews with people working on the project to explain the goals and key innovations in their projects. I will also analyse documents relating to these projects to understand the research themes.

Below is an sketch of the themes that inform this research:


The question of robotic expression — how robots and humans sense and react each other and their ‘lifeworlds’— raises many complex questions around the relationships between humans and machines. This is true for robots designed for human interaction (Fong 2003) and those that are not specifically sociable. Researchers such as Cynthia Beazeal (2009) aim to develop socially intelligent robots by maximizing the robots’ capacity for expression. Robotic designers have found that subtle differences in the configuration of robots seem to affect how people perceive their interactions (Fukuda and Ueda 2010). Anthropologist Lucy Suchman (2006) has drawn attention to the broader meanings informing peoples’ understanding of robots. The increasing capacities of robots to intervene autonomously raises many ethical questions that go beyond beyond technical solutions and military applications (Arkin 2008).


Work in a range of social science and humanities disciplines has shown how space is not just a container for things, but something that is a product of social interactions (Goffman 1978; Goffman and Berger 1978; Lefebvre 1991). The interactions between robots, humans and environments are necessarily staged in particular places: laboratories; trade shows; museums; art galleries; domestic spaces; mines; war zones. This dimension of the research will directly observe, and listen to reports in interviews of the spaces in which robots are operating. The question of the ‘social’ space of the robot is becoming more pressing as the capabilities of robots


As robots find applications beyond the research lab, the must form alliances with institutions: hospitals, schools, agriculture, the military, mining, museums, the art world, and so on. This component of the study will look at where and how robots are finding support from existing institutions.


Arkin, R. (2008). Governing lethal behavior: embedding ethics in a hybrid deliberative/reactive robot architecture. ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction. Proceedings of the 3rd ACM/IEEE international conference on Human robot interaction.

Breazeal, C. (2009) Role of expressive behaviour for robots that learn from people. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences vol. 364 (1535) pp. 3527-3538

Fong, T., Nourbakhsh, I., & Dautenhahn, K. (2003). A survey of socially interactive robots. Robotics and Autonomous Systems, 42(3-4), 143-166.

Fukuda and Ueda. (2010) Interaction with a Moving Object Affects One’s Perception of Its Animacy. International Journal of Social Robotics pp. 1-7

Goffman, E. (1978). The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth.

Goffman, E., & Berger, B. M. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience.

Homburg, V., & Georgiadou, Y. (2009). A Tale of Two Trajectories: How Spatial Data Infrastructures Travel in Time and Space. The Information Society: An International Journal, 25(5), 303-314.

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

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Wiley-Blackwell.

Murdoch, J. (1998). The spaces of actor-network theory. Geoforum, 29(4), 357-374.

Suchman, L. (2006) Reconfiguring Human-Robot Relations. The 15th IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN06), Hatfield, UK, September 6-8, 2006.

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