Humans and Automata

A Social Study of Robotics

by Riccardo Campa (Author)
©2015 Monographs 165 Pages


The book takes a close look at the social dimensions of robotics. It examines some of the projects on which robotic engineers are presently working, explores the dreams and hopes connected with these undertakings and determines if there is a relation between automation and unemployment within the socio-economic system. Furthermore, it explores the possible futures generated by the development of artificial intelligence and outlines the core ideas of roboethics. Last but not least, it examines the systems of military robots, with special emphasis on the ethical issues raised by the design, construction and utilization of these systems of weaponry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Engineers and Automata
  • 1.1 A definition of ‘robot’
  • 1.2 An historical overview
  • 1.3 The bottom-up approach to robotics
  • 1.4 The rise of social robots
  • 2. Workers and Automata
  • 2.1 Artificial Intelligence and Industrial Automation
  • 2.2 Effects on the level of employment
  • 2.3 Social stratification and new generation robots
  • 2.4 The need for a new socio-industrial policy
  • 3. Citizens and Automata
  • 3.1 Technology and unemployment
  • 3.2 Some methodological tools for scenario analysis
  • 3.3 The unplanned end of work scenario
  • 3.4 The planned end of robots scenario
  • 3.5 The unplanned end of robots scenario
  • 3.6 The planned end of work scenario
  • 3.7 An ethical judgement
  • 3.8 Conclusions
  • 4. Roboethicists and Automata
  • 4.1 Roboethics: a discipline in statu nascendi
  • 4.2 A discipline concerned with futurabilia
  • 4.3 Roboethical codes
  • 4.3.1 Asimov’s three laws of robotics
  • 4.3.2 The Euron Codex
  • 4.4 Evolution and legal responsibility
  • 4.5 Possible ethical problems in android robotics
  • 4.5.1 The NDR 114 Model
  • 4.5.2 The Galatea Model
  • 4.5.3 The Messalina Model
  • 4.5.4 The Gurdulù Model
  • 4.5.5 The Golem Model
  • 5. Soldiers and Automata
  • 5.1 Defining robotic weapon
  • 5.2 Robots of the sky, the sea, and the land
  • 5.2.1 Sky Robots
  • 5.2.2 Sea Robots
  • 5.2.3 Land Robots
  • 5.3 The main functions of the military robots
  • 5.4 Main objections to the belligerent use of robots
  • 5.4.1 Noal Sharkey’s plea
  • 5.4.2 Robotic wars as war crimes without criminals?
  • 5.4.3 Trivialization and multiplication of armed conflicts
  • 5.5 Analyses and propositions
  • 5.5.1 The Impracticability of the Moratorium
  • 5.5.2 Pragmatism as a remedy for undesired effects
  • 5.5.3 Voyeurism as an antidote to conflict escalation
  • 5.5.4 Correct information as a counterweight to alarmism
  • 5.6 Scenario analysis: dreams and nightmares
  • 5.7 Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index of names

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This book, as its title should quite clearly comunicate, is not on robotics as such, but rather on the social dimensions of robotics. So, let us start from a question: given that the author of this book is a sociologist, why is the research named ‘a social study,’ and not ‘a sociological study,’ of robotics? The main reason is that I explore different aspects of robotics, more specifically, the historical, economic, ethical, political, and futurological ones. The adjective that could possibly include all these aspects is ‘social.’ If sociology were the superscience originally intended by its founders in the 19th century (especially Comte and Spencer), we could still call this research a ‘sociological study.’ However, subsequently, sociology has strictly defined its object of study and research techniques, differentiating itself from other social sciences or disciplines such as history, economics, ethics, politics, and future studies.

The change in scope that characterizes the shift from classic to contemporary sociology has already been noticed by Florian Znaniecki (1934: v-iv) in his book The Method of Sociology. Znaniecki writes: “Now, sociology is passing through a crisis as deep as any science ever passed through. It was established as a synthetic science of ‘society’ or ‘civilization,’ using the results of several other sciences to draw such comprehensive generalizations as none of those sciences could or cared to draw for itself. It is changing into an analytic science investigating directly and independently particular empirical data, formulating its own results in a vast monographic literature, and not only avoiding hasty conclusions, but often mistrusting generalization more than other sciences do, and more than is good for any science.”

Moreover, Max Weber notoriously proposed a rigid distinction between explanatory theories and normative theories, making of only the first the goal of sociology. This has been remarked, for instance, by the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, which defines ‘normative theories’ as “hypotheses or other statements about what is right and wrong, desirable or undesirable, just or unjust in society,” and points out that “the majority of sociologists consider it illegitimate to move from explanation to evaluation. In their view, sociology should strive to be value-free, objective, or at least to avoid making explicit value-judgements. This is because, according to the most popular philosophies of the social sciences, conflicts over values cannot be settled factually. Moral pronouncements cannot be objectively shown to be true or false, since value-judgements are subjective preferences, outside the realm of rational inquiry” (Marshall 2003). ← 11 | 12 →

Sometimes, this position has been taken too far, failing to recognize that Max Weber (2008, 46–7) was mainly talking about being neutral while teaching in the classroom – that is, avoiding behaving as a guru inside the walls of academy. To act as such a guru would have been ‘unfair,’ because students were asked to be passive listeners. Therefore, shifting from the objective ground of fact-statements to the subjective field of value-judgements could result in a kind of moral ‘violence.’ However, Weber openly stated that outside the classroom – i.e. in public conferences or in books – a social scientist could also engage in discussions about “what to do,” and not only “what is or is not.”

It is true that social science is different from social policy from a logical and methodological point of view, but it is also quite clear that the one needs the other. Applied sociology needs theoretical sociology, as robotic engineering needs theoretical physics. Contrarily to what most people assume, robotic engineering – as any type of engineering – is not value-free. It is value-laden no less than social policy or applied sociology, because it changes the world and the lifestyle of people, and very often it does it in a more radical way than social policies. One can argue, however, that social scientists tend to be more conscious than engineers about the political implications and the social consequences of their applications.

The main task of a sociologist is to reconstruct facts and unveil hidden mechanisms that establish a causal relation between certain actions and certain consequences. A sociologist does not venture into statements as to what humans ought to do on the basis of an ethical code or a political doctrine. If (s)he did, (s)he would be a moralist or a politician. Nevertheless – and this is what sociotechnology or social engineering consists of – a sociologist can still evaluate the lines of action from a chiefly technical point of view. For example, (s)he can say if the means M, adopted by agent A, in order to reach the objectives O1, O2, O3…On, is adequate or not in the light of the situation S in which the agent has to make a decision. In this case the evaluation is technical, not moral, because it is concerned with the means, not the ends. An Italian proverb speaks to this tense between the analyses of means and ends: “Non puoi avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca” (“one cannot have a full bottle and a drunk wife”). The sociologist will not tell a married man that he should give his wife a bottle of champagne, or that he would do better to save the money. But (s)he may be able to evaluate the efficiency of this man’s strategies, whatever these may be, based on the observation that one cannot have a full bottle and a drunk wife. This is also what the physicist does when (s)he uses knowledge to modify reality, by elaborating theories that will be useful to build machines. In this case we call him an engineer, and certainly not a moralist, even if what he does has profound consequences on the life of a lot of people. ← 12 | 13 →

In spite of the fact that – given a certain definition of sociology – this work could be categorized as sociological, I decided to opt for a different title in order to avoid the endless epistemological and methodological discussions that surround sociology. We are not here to decide what sociology is or is not, what it should be or should not be, or if sociology is a real science or not. Labelling this work a “sociological study” could divert the attention from the real focus of this book: robots and their interactions with humans. Besides, I am comforted by the fact that interdisciplinary “social studies of science and technology” have already an established tradition inside the academic world.

This book has been composed by assembling and organizing essays and articles already published in English or Italian in scientific and academic journals. That is why the reader may find some concepts to be repeated in different parts of the book. This was a conscious decision made while compiling the various essays and articles, as each chapter is intended to be autonomous, with its own narrative structure. If concepts are repeated in different contexts that means that they are important within the given discussion and will helpful for the reader. This does not mean that those articles and fragments already published were left untouched. Robotics is rapidly evolving, therefore articles published two or three years ago often needed a ‘face-lift,’ that would take into account new direct observations or more recent secondary literature on the topic.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Engineers and Automata.”1 Its purpose is to examine some of the projects on which robotic engineers are presently working, and to explore the dreams and hopes connected with these undertakings. Here I offer some general information about robots and their origins, some technical information about the difference between the top-down and the bottom-up approaches to robotics, and I show how robotic engineers are incorporating a social understanding of robots. Finally, I explore the most recent literature on social robotics and argue that this interdiscipline is evolving in a direction that will soon require a systematic collaboration between engineers and social scientists.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Technological Unemployment Unmanned Systems robots
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 165 pp., 4 tables

Biographical notes

Riccardo Campa (Author)

Riccardo Campa is Professor Extraordinarius of Sociology of Science and Technology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


Title: Humans and Automata
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168 pages