Sorry, the Robot Uprising Is Not Coming: Review of More Than Machines?: The Attribution of (In)Animacy to Robot Technology by Laura Voss
Liz W. Faber
More Than Machines?: The Attribution of (In)Animacy to Robot Technology. Laura Voss. Columbia University Press/Transcript Publishing, April 2021.
For lovers of science fiction, the image of robots and robotics is fairly standardized by now: humans create humanoid robots to replace human labor, and the robots spend the whole time either serving humans or going haywire and deciding to destroy them. And, of course, the human hero of our tale, almost always a white guy, has to either team up with the robots or fight them for his own survival. There are variations on the tale; sometimes the robot is a lone sidekick who saves the hero by sacrificing his own life; other times the robot is a ship’s computer and just serves her purpose without any big fuss. These narratives are classic parts of the science fiction genre, often to the point of cliché. But importantly, as Laura Voss explores in her recent book More Than Machines?: The Attribution of (In)Animacy to Robot Technology, sci-fi robots are a far cry from real robotics research, and the way we talk about, interact with, and implement real robots is much more complicated than the standard sci-fi fare.
Voss’s overarching focus in the book is the concept of “ascribed animacy,” or the way we use language and media to think about robots as either animate (i.e., autonomous, living, though not necessarily agentic) or inanimate objects. In other words, for Voss, the question is not whether robots are alive, or even why we insist on treating them like they are; rather, she asks how we talk about robots as living, animate beings. While most studies of robots focus on how typical users interact with them or even how science fiction represents them, Voss studies the way roboticists interact with and talk about robots as well as how journalists describe robotics technology. Voss describes this as the “life cycle of the robot,” from creation to marketing to media coverage. Voss herself is an artist and a Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar who recently completed her DPhil in STS from Technische Universität München’s Munich Center for Technology in Society; she is currently working as science manager in the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München’s Research Strategy Unit.
More Than Machines?, a developed version of Voss’s doctoral thesis, contributes broadly to multiple disciplines, including STS, SF studies, media/communication studies, and science journalism. The book features not only an impressively thorough and readable literature review, but also wonderful new qualitative research. In chapter 3, “Making Robots,” Voss interviews 8 roboticists and performs a thoughtful analysis of their linguistic practices, noting that some robotics creators treat their machines as teammates, while others fastidiously refuse to do so. Chapter 4, “Showing Off Robots,” offers a fascinating look at the questionable practices robotics companies employ to showcase their creations, both on social media and in demonstrations. Perhaps most relevant to ARB’s readers, though, is chapter 5, “Reporting on Robots,” in which Voss analyzes how popular media frames and discusses actual robotics. Through this analysis, she uncovers how journalists rely heavily—and often erroneously—on science fiction tropes, such as pictures of the Terminator or RoboCop, to construct stories about new robotics research.
My one point of contention with Voss’s book is that she barely offers any recommendations for addressing the problems she identifies. Although she points out early in the book that she’s less interested in talking about whether it’s good or bad to ascribe animacy to robots, she nevertheless does identify harmful practices in science journalism and science communication more broadly. The takeaway of the book, as Voss describes it in the last section of the conclusion, is more or less that it’s okay to talk playfully about robots as both living beings and pure machines, but that science communicators and journalists need to be extra careful in how they do so. Voss is right, though I wish she had pushed this idea further. Her conclusion feels too quick, too lacking in scope, with no examples of good science journalism as counterexamples, no broader discussion of how storytelling functions in science writing, and doesn’t examine why, from a social scientific and/or cultural studies perspective, science fiction narratives are so easily co-opted in journalism. Voss opened the door (or perhaps a robot opened it for her?), but she didn’t walk through.
With that said, there is an opportunity here for educators to pick up where Voss leaves off. There’s ample space to take the content analyses in More Than Machines? and build them into a lesson on science journalism, storytelling and AI, or effective ways to address systemic concerns in robotics research. Any of the chapters in More Than Machines? could stand on their own in STS, science fiction, or tech ethics courses for undergraduates, though the full book is an accessible and quick read that I would recommend for anyone involved in journalism or media studies. In the end, Voss’s book will definitely convince you that the robot uprising isn’t coming, and that you shouldn’t believe all the media accounts you see or read. Skynet isn’t sentient, RoboCop isn’t patrolling the streets, and Karel Capek’s classic Rossum’s Universal Robots aren’t about to sweep through the world exterminating humanity. But, on the bright side, we’ll always have science fiction to help us sort through our anxieties about today’s robots. You know, just in case.
Liz W Faber (she/her) is the Chairperson of the Arts & Sciences Division at Laboure College of Healthcare, where she teaches interdisciplinary writing courses for nursing and healthcare students. She holds a PhD in Mass Communication & Media Arts from Southern Illinois University. Her research areas include science fiction, representations of artificial intelligence, computer and technology history, feminist and queer studies, American studies, and sound studies. She is the author of The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri (U of Minnesota Press, 2020).
The editor, Sabrina Mittermeier is acquainted with both the author of this review and the author of the reviewed work.