Tracing the connections between human-like robots and AI at the site of dehumanization and exploited labor
The word robot—introduced in Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R.—derives from rabota, the Czech word for servitude or forced labor. A century later, the play’s dystopian themes of dehumanization and exploited labor are being played out in factories, workplaces, and battlefields. In The Robotic Imaginary, Jennifer Rhee traces the provocative and productive connections of contemporary robots in technology, film, art, and literature. Centered around the twinned processes of anthropomorphization and dehumanization, she analyzes the coevolution of cultural and technological robots and artificial intelligence, arguing that it is through the conceptualization of the human and, more important, the dehumanized that these multiple spheres affect and transform each other.
Drawing on the writings of Alan Turing, Sara Ahmed, and Arlie Russell Hochschild; such films and novels as Her and The Stepford Wives; technologies like Kismet (the pioneering “emotional robot”); and contemporary drone art, this book explores anthropomorphic paradigms in robot design and imagery in ways that often challenge the very grounds on which those paradigms operate in robotics labs and industry. From disembodied, conversational AI and its entanglement with care labor; embodied mobile robots as they intersect with domestic labor; emotional robots impacting affective labor; and armed military drones and artistic responses to drone warfare, The Robotic Imaginary ultimately reveals how the human is made knowable through the design of and discourse on humanoid robots that are, paradoxically, dehumanized.
Jennifer Rhee is assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"The Robotic Imaginary persuasively shows how contemporary depictions of robots and AI offer unique insight into both the governing conceptions of the human (of who does and doesn’t count as fully human) and the gendered and racialized ways in which we are currently imagining and constructing labor."—Priscilla Wald, author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative
"The Robotic Imaginary is a profound contribution to our comprehension of ‘the human,’ read through technocultures of artificial intelligence and robotics. Jennifer Rhee makes an incisive and compelling argument for the connections between histories of devalued labor and of the dehumanized Other, and the limits of identification and knowability as the basis for an ethics of caring, thinking, feeling, and dying."—Lucy Suchman, author of Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions