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Are robots the technology of the 21st century?  With the COVID-19 pandemic this question suddenly appears in a new light—tempting us with a vision where robots work to support and protect healthcare workers, robot tutors relieve parents when schools are closed, and where we use tele-operated robots to safely go shopping or visit friends, enjoying new forms of physical social presence by proxy. 

Social robotics is an interdisciplinary research area that aims to create robots skilled enough to act within the physical and symbolic spaces of human social interactions.  Such ‘social’ robots are often designed to engage humans in social interactions with them —but how will such robotic ”companions” affect the fabric of social interactions among people and our self-understanding in the long run?   How can we ensure that we develop this new technology in ways that are culturally sustainable? 

This is the leading question of the international research conference Robophilosophy2020: Culturally Sustainable Social Robotics, August 18-21, 2020 hosted online live by Aarhus University, Denmark.   Robophilosophy2020 will feature over 100 speakers from philosophy and other Humanities, among them many outstanding international researchers and scholars, to take up the intricate and complex theoretical and practical questions raised by social robotics. The thematic focus this time is on methods, case studies, and design recommendations relating to the question how we can develop social robotics applications that are in line with our socio-cultural values.  

The conference is the fourth event of the biennial international Robophilosophy Conference Series, creating the world’s largest events for research exchange in Humanities research in and on social robotics.    


 Facts and definitions: 


  • The biennial Robophilosophy Conference Series was founded in 2014 by researchers from the department for philosophy and the history of ideas at Aarhus University, Denmark.  
  • While Robophilosophy 2014 and 2016 were held in Aarhus, the series is now held every four years in an international location; in 2018 it was hosted by the University of Vienna and in 2022 it will take place at the University of Helsinki. 
  • Robophilosophy conferences are typically multi-track international conferences with 80-100 talks (plenaries, workshops, panel discussions, sessions talks) and around 250 participants.  
  • Robophilosophy is a new area of applied interdisciplinary research in philosophy, defined as “philosophy of, for, and by social robotics”. The term and the area was defined in 2014; for more information see here (conferences.au.dk/robo-philosophy/what-is-robophilosophy/ ).  Robophilosophy conference are focused on philosophical research, but since robophilosophy is by definition interdisciplinary, also speakers from other Humanities and technological disicplines (computer science, robotics engineering) present papers and attend. 
  • The main sponsor of the Robophilosophy Conference Series has been the Carlsberg Foundation so far, but single conferences also had support from the Velux Foundation and the Danish Research Council (for more information see the link “Previous Conferences”) 
  • What is a ‘social robot’?  The field of social robotics and HRI (official abbreviation for “Human-Robot Interaction”, which in turn is short for Human Robot Interaction Research) is in agreement that it is quite difficult to define that term.  -- Some researchers in the Research Unit for Robophilosophy and Integrative Social Robotics (link) operate with the following definition: “A social robot is an artificial agent that is programmed to be able to move and act, fully or partly autonomously, in the physical and symbolic spaces of human social interactions. This ability implies that the robot’s physical, kinematic, and functional design creates affordances for human responses, conscious or pre-conscious, that resemble human social interactions with other humans or with animals” (J. Seibt). 
  • The conference is the first large-scale international conference hosted at AU online—it features over 70 talks with live plenaries, workshops, and discussion sessions on pre-recorded session talks. 



Some questions and quotable statements of the conference organizers 


Q: Why was the Robophilosophy Conference Series introduced?  

A: “We, the researchers at the Research for Robophilosophy and Integrative Social Robotics, noticed in 2014 that the two interdisciplinary research fields developing and investigating social robots— “social robotics” and “ HRI” (Human Robot Interaction)—do not sufficiently include Humanities research.  The conference series was founded in order to create or support this connection between engineering and Humanities research.“ 


Q: Robophilosphy conferences aim to connect Humanities research to engineering—why is this necessary? 

A: “When engineers develop weeding robots, i.e., robots that interact with plants, they involve plant experts. When engineers build social robots, i.e., robots to interact with humans in the symbolic space of human social interactions, they likewise need to involve those that have the expertise to analyse human experiences, socio-cultural practices, norms and values.  To fail to do so does not make good sense scientifically, it is economically unwise since it may create non-viable applications, and it is irresponsible relative to every researcher’s obligation to have concern for individual and social human well-being. Once we place so-called ‘social robots’ into the social practices of our everyday lives and lifeworlds, we create complex, and possibly irreversible, interventions in the physical and semantic spaces of human culture and sociality. The long-term socio-cultural consequences of these interventions are currently impossible to gauge. While the use of ‘social’ robots in service functions, i.e. within the care-, education-, and entertainment sector, promises great economic gain, it also potentially infringes upon ethical, epistemic, existential, and other socio-cultural core values. Engineers are highly creative people and for centuries we all have benefitted from their power of imagination. But in the area of social robotics, which essentially amounts to the ‘engineering of culture’, we need expert cultural imagination—these is what the Humanities can supply, responsible visions of a future worth living.”  

Q: Are there socio-political implications of robophilosophy? 

A1: “Since there are profound socio-political implications of social robotics, ranging from job-loss and resulting social inequality to privacy protection issues, robophilosophy also addresses and carries this socio-political dimension. These issues were in the foreground at Robophilosophy 2018 in Vienna, Envisioning Robots in Society—Politics, Power, and Public Space. A particularly important (and shocking) datum for robophilosophy is that some people quite seriously envision robots as future political leaders.” 

A2: “It is problematically short-sighted when governments these days curtail Humanities education and research instead of opening up new interdisciplinary educations. Denmark has put an explicit focus on “culturally sustainable robotics, drones, and AI research” and at AU Arts we have now a new subsidiary education in Humanistic Technology Development. Poignantly put, with technology going social, the Humanities matter like never before. “ 

A3: “If you want to build a weeding robot that works, you need to include a domain expert—someone who knows about weeds.  If you want to create a social robotics application that 'works’, you need to include a domain expert, someone who knows about socio-cultural practices and values, and how to determine them for a particular context.  This is the expertise of the Humanities.  In order to create futures worth living, engineers and Humanities researchers need to collaborate closely.”