Gay Robot Fieldwork

By Kathleen Richardson
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow,
Department of Anthropology,
University College London (UCL).
Once a friend said to me ‘I don’t mind if someone is gay, but I don’t want it rammed down my throat’ (whatever could he have meant???) I think what he meant was gay people who talk too much about being gay. Heterosexuals talk about being, well, straight, all the time. They talk about their engagements, husbands and wives, plans for children etc.. In fact, heterosexual people talk a lot about being heterosexual. You might not even be aware of how much straight people talk about being straight, but they do. When I was asked to write something for this blog, I wondered what information might be useful to share. On this occasion I want to write about being a gay anthropologist and how that has affected choices I’ve made in my anthropological career.
As an undergraduate I went to Costa Rica for my first fieldwork experience. I loved Costa Rica as a place, it was stimulating and exciting and my topic – indigenous rights – was at that time high on the agenda of the national government. As a place that fitted perfectly with my research topic, I could not have chosen better. However, I did find it difficult being a lesbian. The main problem was not being able to meet anyone – at the time of my travel there was only one gay bar in the capital (and my fieldwork was in a different part of the country). I think it useful to think about my own experience in relation to my other travelling companions. All three of us women, all three of us single, yet as time went on, my two travel companions met and began dating a tourist and a local, whilst there were no such opportunities for me. Another difficulty was disguising my sexuality. There are still many places in the world where being gay is still a crime and homosexuality is hidden, underground or there but invisible. I would not want to put off any gay anthropologist from travelling to these regions (and many do), because as an anthropologist you have to weight up the interest in your topic, with the kinds of problems you may experience being gay or lesbian (and I think the experience is also qualitatively different for gay men and lesbian women). Yet being gay puts a slightly different tinge on a situation. Being straight is such a normal part of life that it is really easy to see how my friend thought any mention of being gay was excessive, because if you are heterosexual it is so normal and unquestioned to talk about being straight. As a little experiment, try to go for one day, not mentioning to anyone your sexuality and if anyone asks play the pronoun game – say “them” or “they” instead of “he” or “she” and see how you get on. For me, when choosing graduate fieldwork I did not want the experience of being so isolated again for 18 months or so. The field can get very lonely at times, and if you are like many who are not lucky enough to have a partner or family travelling with you, you have to build your social relationships from scratch and one or more of these may become more intimate. When I was thinking about my PhD plan, I was thinking about my field as a place where I would have to build social relationships, and whether I was willing to make the sacrifice of hiding my sexuality from my interlocutors. But it wasn’t my sexuality that made me decide to go to Cambridge, MA in the United States (over my plan to go to Amazonia), but robots.
My initial plan was to conduct fieldwork in Amazonia exploring indigenous views of persons and things, but after watching the film AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) directed by Steven Spielberg I decided to explore these themes in relation to robots. AI is about a relationship between a robot boy, David, and a couple whose child is ill and in a suspended state until his illness can be cured. In the interim the father, who works for a technology company, is chosen to host a robot child. This film then is an exploration of whether a human- more particularly the mother- could develop a relationship with a robot child. The fact that the robot David was given a child’s form was interesting, because when I began my fieldwork I realised how many robotic labs around the world actually do design their robots to look like children, or to be modelled on developmental psychology models. Moreover, forget the notion of the robot who is just built to work (the term robot is taken from the Slavic word robota – which means to work slavishly)- some robots are built now specifically to be social robots or companion robots. These robots might not actually “work” at all (like the robot Paro which is seal-like in its appearance and behaviours and is used amongst elderly people). And there are even some that speculate that robots and people will develop friendships and sexual relations (though in my view it is possible to have sex with just about anything, having a relationship with an artefact is something else altogether). Or it may be a realisation of the Iron Cage hypothesis by Max Weber where all sentiment is erased and replaced by calculation and contract where a substitute child or partner will do, one that you can switch off and on as you please, just like people can now switch on and off their TVs, cars and computers.
However, this shift in geographical area was qualitatively different for me as a gay woman, compared to my earlier experience in Costa Rica. Within a few weeks of arriving in the robotics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) I started to realise that I didn’t need to keep my sexuality a secret and within a few weeks the whole lab knew. This was certainly interesting from an anthropological perspective, because prior to fieldwork I had read Stefan Helmreich’s Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World, (1998) where he had raised issues of class, race and sexuality and emphasised that the scientists he met were ignorant of these issues in the artefacts they produced and the buildings and environment they worked in. Helreich paints a very different picture of computer scientists to the ones I met at MIT. MIT computer scientists and roboticists, at least, were politically liberal and to some extent were culturally sensitive, for example on one occasion when trying to decide the name for a robot they refused to give a religious name to a robot after reflecting it might offend people from the Hindi religion. These scientists too were cautious about assigning genders to their machines, were open to the idea of alternative ontologies and types of being and generally supportive of extending civil rights to gays (of course this was not true of everyone, but on the whole it definitely was the norm). During my time in the US, the debate about gay marriage was well underway, and many lab members joined me on the demonstrations that took place outside City Hall in Boston. Rather than find a community of scientists who weren’t alert to the social influences in their work, as Helmreich did, these roboticists very much were and I write about these issues in my PhD dissertation.
Robots for me were definitely the right choice for fieldwork. Robots have always fascinated me, since my first viewing of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as a 15 year old interested in radical politics. The rise of humanoids (from around the mid-1990s) have led to this becoming a growth area with now dozens and dozens of projects around the world building humanoid and social robots. This fundamental interest I have in the anthropology of robots, relationality and personhood has led me into even newer directions in my postdoctoral research. My current study is a look at what it means to be social, and a look at humanoid robots designed to help people with autism spectrum conditions (ASD). What is interesting about this research is that some researchers at the University of Hertfordshire found humanoid robots can seem to encourage children with ASD to interact with other adults and children, and having a robot in the room seemed to improve social behaviours that children with ASD find difficult. I am now running a psychology experiment designed by autism specialist psychologists to test if this hypothesis is true. I am acting as an experimental psychologist, roboticist and anthropologist all rolled into one. I hope this research will enable me to contribute to anthropological theorizing of the social.
Finally, because anthropological data collection relies on so much personal interaction with other people and the building of social relationships, who you are does matter (whether your gay, of a certain class, your sexuality and your gender and race), and it will matter in all kinds of configurations depending on where you go to do fieldwork and it may be relevant to think methodologically about these issues and ultimately you have to be passionate about your topic.
Good luck wherever your adventures might take you.
Kathleen Richardson
If you are interested in robots, or gay or lesbian, and embarking on fieldwork and have some issues you may want to discuss please get in touch.
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) Dir. Steven Spielberg
Metropolis (1927) Dir Fritz Lang
Paro Robot Seal –
Lucy Tobin. March 10 2010. At home with the android family: work going on in Hatfield could create robot home helps – or even one day robot girlfriends and boyfriends. The Guardian Newspaper.
Helmreich, S. 1998. Silicon second nature: culturing artificial life in a digital world.
University of California Press: California.
Richardson, K. 2008. Annihilating Difference? Robots and Building Design at MIT. Unpublished dissertation. Cambridge University.
Weber, M. (2001). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge Classics.

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