Beyond Anthropomorphism

Rethinking Human-Machine Relations in Robotics and A.I.
June 11-12 2019
Sydney Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems

About Symposium:

Sydney Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems SIRIS, in collaboration with the Sociotechnical Futures Lab (STuF) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Sydney Business School has organised a 2-day international and multidisciplinary symposium on Human-Machine relations in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

This symposium challenges the popular expectation that the perfect future robot will be indistinguishable from, or superior to humans, or that humans will be perfectible through technology. Drawing on the latest research in engineering, social sciences and humanities, this event will evaluate the current state-of-the art against these fantastic visions. AI, robotics and social robotics were founded on the metaphors of the thinker, the labourer and, most recently, the companion. This symposium will explore where these metaphors are productive, and where they are problematic. This event will provide a more grounded understanding of the likely futures for these exciting and terrifying technologies.

Day 1 of the symposium is co-hosted by Sydney Ideas Event – Why should the perfect robot look and think just like a human?


Date: 11 – 12 June, 2019

Tuesday 11 June 2019, Co-hosted by Sydney Ideas – Why should the perfect robot look and think just like a human?

Time: 6pm – 7:30pm

Venue: SSB Lecture Theatre 200 Social Sciences Building, the University of Sydney


Wednesday 12 June 2019

Time: 9am – 6pm

Venue: Lecture Theatre 1130 Abercrombie Business School Building, the University of Sydney


Symposium Description:

Artificial intelligence and robotics were founded on metaphors that equated the human and the technological — the thinker and the labourer. These anthropomorphic conceptions, bound up in the language, sociotechnical relations, narratives, and experiences of human-computer and human-robot interaction, have a certain power over how these technologies are conceived, designed and even used. While illustrative, powerful and often useful, these metaphors can also be misleading, as they can hide crucial differences between humans and machines. Yet the boundaries between humans and machines are fluid and never clearly given.

As humans we depend on machines for who we are. We are the creators of machines and we often do so in our own image. We ascribe human agency to artificially ‘intelligent’ computer systems and replicate the human in our robotic creations. Conversely, we have come to accept machine-metaphors when thinking about ourselves and our cognition. The brain and mind are commonly talked about in computer terms, colloquially and by neuroscientists themselves – we are said to ‘process information’, have ‘inputs and outputs’, memory, we ‘download’ things to our ‘hard disk’.

Neither relationship, creating machines in the human image or conceiving of humans in machine-like terms, is without problems, as they reduce and limit the field of thinking and conception in design and research.

This symposium will interrogate the relationships between humans, AIs and robots by trying to get beyond the dominant naturalisinganthropomorphic metaphors and machine conceptions of human cognition, agency and action. We stress that AI and robots are different from other machines and communication technologies because they seem to have agency, rather than simply being tools that enhance human powers. In Ihde’sterms, they establish alterity or background relations rather than hermeneutic or embodiment relations. They supposedly operate with a certain autonomy and social presence. This is not entirely unprecedented, as the actor-network theorists argue that many non-human actors already perform as agents in sociotechnical networks. Nass and Reeves argue that people relate to many of their devices in the same way that they treat other people.

Therefore this symposium aims to:

  • Challenge organismic language (such as sensing, thinking, acting) by being specific about the capacities of robotic systems to engage with their material, symbolic and social environments.
  • Challenge mechanistic language (such as processing, storing information) in understanding human cognition, which in turn is the basis for the creation of artificial cognition, creating a self-referential loop.
  • Open the space for discussing ethics for robotics that engages with transferences, equivalencies and differences between robot and human agency.
  • Investigate the historical, institutional and sociopolitical contexts of development in robots and AI.
  • Explore the phenomenology, politics and aesthetics of human-robot interactions beyond anthropomorphism, as well as its science.
  • Critically examine human-robot relations in practices that resemble human-human relations such as conversation, social presence, dance and other forms of interaction.
  • Employ ethnographic methods in understanding human-robot relations
  • Reconsider human/machine relations in robotic design and engineering


>>> Download symposium flyer