The politics of robotics research

Title: What is robotics made of? The interdisciplinary politics of robotics research

Authors: Ola Michalec, Cian O’Donovan and Mehdi Sobhani

Journal: Humanities & Social Sciences Communications

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Abstract: Under framings of grand challenges, robotics has been proposed as a solution to a wide range of societal issues such as road safety, ageing society, economic productivity and climate change. However, what exactly is robotics research? From its inception, robotics has been an inherently interdisciplinary field, bringing together diverse domains such as engineering, cognitive science, computer science and, more recently, knowledge from social sciences and humanities. Previous research on interdisciplinarity shows that this mode of knowledge production is often driven by societal concerns and political choices. The politics of who gets to make these choices and on what terms is the focus of empirical research in this paper. Using a novel mixed-method approach combining bibliometrics, desk-based analysis and fieldwork, this article builds a narrative of interdisciplinarity at the UK’s largest public robotics lab, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. This paper argues for the recognition of the plural ways of knowing interdisciplinarity. From citation analysis, through tracing of the emerging fields and disciplines, to, finally, the investigation of researchers’ experiences; each method contributes a distinct and complementary outlook on “what robotics is made of”. While bibliometrics allows visualising prominent disciplines and keywords, document analysis reveals influential and missing stakeholders. Meanwhile, fieldwork explores the logics underpinning robotics and identifies the capabilities necessary to perform the research. In doing so, the paper synthesises plural ways of locating politics in interdisciplinary research and provides recommendations for enabling “structural preparedness for interdisciplinarity”.

Citation: Michalec, O., O’Donovan, C., & Sobhani, M. (2021). What is robotics made of? The interdisciplinary politics of robotics research. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8(1), 1–15.

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