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Integrative Social Robotics—A New Framework for Culturally Sustainable Technology Solutions

Semper Ardens Research Project | 16/06/2016

The production of robots with “social skills” or even “social intelligence”—drives a technological revolution of possibly unprecedented disruptive potential, both at the socio-economic and the socio-cultural level.

By Professor Johanna Seibt, Aarhus University

Social robotics—the production of robots with “social skills” or even “social intelligence”—drives a technological revolution of possibly unprecedented disruptive potential, both at the socio-economic and the socio-cultural level.  How will the new forms of asymmetric, i.e. partly simulated, social interactions affect us? 

Since we cannot anticipate the long-term effects of the wide-spread use of social robots, we need to envisage new forms of research organisation that will enable us to regulate social robotics applications from the beginning and not, as currently, after the fact. “Integrative Social Robotics” (ISR) is a new strategy for developing social robotics applications—it tightly integrates robotics research with a wide scope of research disciplines that investigate human social interactions, including empirical, conceptual, and value-theoretical research in the Humanities.

On the ISR approach, socio-cultural conceptions of values and (personal and social) well-being guide the development of social robotics applications from idea to implementation. This follows the model of ‘user-driven design’ writ large—what steers the design and development process are the normative preferences of a cultural community, whose conceptions of well-being are in turn informed by the empirical investigation of human-robot interactions. 

The ISR approach is a method for implementing scientific social responsibility in the domain of robotics.  But it also requires that the humanities give up on an exclusively reflective stance and cast themselves in a new, pro-active role—for example as robophilosophy.

“Human values live nowhere else than in what we do—if we change the fabric of our social interactions, we change what we can value in our lives, for better or worse.” (Johanna Seibt)

If current predictions hold, we are at the cusp of pervasive and disruptive technological change. According to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2025 the market value of advanced robotics sector will be between 1.7- 4,5 trillion US $ per year. The research agenda “Robotics2020” of EuRobotics, an association of 183 European robotics firms and research institutes, predicts that by 2020 robotics will “influence every aspect of work and home.”1  By 2035, according to a recent projection, a third of the current Danish workforce will have been replaced by robots.

Source: Executive Summary World Robotics 2015 Service Robots

This development is driven by the new trend in robotics to build artificial agents that interact with human beings (in physical space) in accordance with socio-cultural norms. 

Social robots are currently applied in elderly care (‘carebots’), cognitive training, and autism therapy.  But on the horizon—and partly already on the market for individual use—are applications as “personal assistants,” “friends,” “romantic partners”, “teachers”, “tutors”, “guides”, “receptionists”, “drivers”, “soldiers”, and “nannies”.

How will wide-spread presence of social robots affect our socio-cultural practices, and thereby change the norms and values realised in these practices? The arrival of social robotics will not only have momentous socio-economic repercussions, it also marks a potential turning point in human cultural history—the “robotic moment.” 

“We live the robotic moment not because we have companionate robots in our lives but because the way we contemplate them on the horizon says much about who we are and who we are willing to become.”2 

How are we to master the socio-cultural dimension of the “robotic moment”—practically and conceptually?  Should we ban social robots and reject the idea of artificial sociality as paradoxical? Should we aim to regulate the engineering of socio-cultural interactions, as we regulate genetic engineering? Should we embrace “post-humanism” tout court, give up on our longstanding conceit that human capacities are exceptional, and let the ‘best agent win,’ whether biological or artificial?

“Technology design recently has hailed its “third paradigm,” shifting focus away from artefacts and over to people’s individual experience of technology. But social robotics addresses us also as a community. Social robotics challenges the conceptual normative practices in our community—what should count as a ‘caretaker’ or ‘companion’?—as well as our communal preferences for (e.g.) ‘authentic’ or ‘meaningful’ social interactions.” (Johanna Seibt)

Integrative Social Robotics

As researchers in robotics and in the humanities have urged, decisions on the regulation of the robotics market need to be taken now.3 Legislators and policy-makers are currently in a predicament, however, since especially the expectable socio-cultural impact of social robotics applications cannot be gauged on the basis of available research, due to the current paradigm for research organisation in social robotics.

Currently research, design, and development in robotics proceed independently of socio-cultural research; the product of the research process is the social robot, conceived of as a ready-made object. Decisions on the placement of these objects are supported by ethics councils whose members are experts in value-theoretic and conceptual research that is (a) focused on interactions, not on objects, and (b) dissociated from empirical research in HRI.

In short, currently we first ask what social robots can do, and then what they should do—at a time when regulation may already be too late. In contrast, the approach of “Integrative Social Robotics”4  (ISR, cf. fig. 2) investigates which human-robot interactions can and should occur, keeping empirical and normative question of social robotics in tight interaction.

In order to do justice to the complexity of human social interactions, the ISR approach integrates, with continuous feedback, a wide scope of disciplines that pertain to human social interaction, and employs many investigative methods.


The Semper Ardens grant from the Carlsberg Foundation will make it possible to implement the ISR approach for the first time. To prove the viability of the new production paradigm a project team of 25 researchers shall produce new social robotics applications designed to enhance values of personal well-being, such as health authenticity, rational autonomy, and creativity, but also social justice and (ethnic) peace as central areas of social responsibility. 

The ISR approach envisages a new proactive engagement of the humanities in addition to their traditional reflective role. In fact, the approach itself is the result of such an engagement, undertaken by members of the Aarhus Philosophy Department since 2012.5   We introduced the term “robophilosophy” (J. Seibt) to signal that the phenomena of artificial social agency call for a philosophical research beyond “robo-ethics” (G. Veruggio).6  

For example, while producing culturally sustainable social robotics applications, the ISR approach will also generate a theoretical framework for the transdisciplinary study of sociality, artificial and biological. For this purpose philosophers—using analytical process ontology—need to devise a classificatory framework for “asymmetric social interactions”, that is, for interactions that can count as social even though one interaction partner merely simulates the actions that are normally involved.7 

In order to discuss which forms of simulation are acceptable for an interaction to count as social, ontologists need to define different types of simulation and describe social interactions in a novel way as a multidimensional matrix8.

Since much of what we humans do in social interactions is preconscious or routine behaviour that simulates intentional actions, the new classificatory framework for human-robot interactions will also teach us something about ourselves.  In combination with on-going interdisciplinary research on human and animal sociality the new conceptual tools may open up for a comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of sociality.

“Robophilosophy is a new area of research that is philosophy of, for, and by social robotics—by designing interaction situations roboticists and philosophers can jointly explore new interaction-based conceptions of what it might mean, and should responsibly mean, to be human in the future.” (Johanna Seibt)
The Project team

The ISR project team consists of 25 researchers from 11 disciplines, including (in alphabetical order): D. Amodio (New York Univ., USA), J. C. Bjerring (Aarhus Univ.), D. Druckman (George Mason Univ and Univ of Queensland, AUS), C. Ess (Univ of Oslo), K. Fischer (Univ of Southern Denmark), R. Hakli (Univ of Helsinki), C. Hasse (Aarhus Univ), H. Ishiguro (Hiroshi Ishiguro Robotics Lab, Kyoto, and Osaka Univ., Japan), P. Kahn (Univ. of Washington at Seattle, USA), N. Nercessian (Harvard Univ.), S. Nishio (ATR-Hiroshi Ishiguro Robotics Lab, Kyoto, Japan), M. Nørskov (Aarhus Univ.), R. Rodogno (Aarhus Univ),  A. Roepstorff (Aarhus Univ.), J. Skewes (Aarhus Univ), John Ulhøj (Aarhus Univ.), and R. Yamazaki (ATR-Hiroshi Ishiguro Robotics Lab, Kyoto, Japan).

According to recent analyses, in the period between 2020 and 2035 the ‘robot revolution’ will put economic pressure on the middle class.  A large percentage of jobs in the service industry and administration will be taken over by robots— 47% in the USA, 35% in Great Britain (C. Frey and M. Osbourne, “The Future of Employment”. 2013), and about 31% in Denmark (Cevea, “Fremtidens job”, 2015).

 “Robo-philosophy” is not (only) an area of applied and (partly) experimental philosophy. It also stands for a systematic reconfiguration of philosophy in view of the phenomena of human-robot interaction. The phenomena of artificial ‘social’ agency challenge the traditional Western model of subjectivity at its core.

According to this model, self-consciousness, rationality, individuality, freedom, agency, responsibility, and moral dignity are a package deal—we can only stand in social relationships to items that have all of these capacities. The traditional model of subjectivity is at the centre of our current cultural self-comprehension and legitimises political authority in Western democracies (Seibt 2014 and 2016c).

The bi-annual Robo-philosophy Conference Series was inaugurated in 2014, with “Social Robots and the Future of Social Relations” (Aarhus, August 20-23). This series features large international events (between 50-100 research talks) presenting interdisciplinary research on issues of social robotics from the perspectives of human-robot interaction studies, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, education, art, and other disciplines.  The next event in the series: “What Social Robots Can and Should Do”, will take place in Aarhus, Oct. 17-21, 2016. 


[1]:  EuRobotics, (2013/2014). Strategic Research Agenda for 2014-2020. http://www.eurobotics. net/cms/upload/PPP/SRA2020_SPARC.pdf

[2]: S. Turkle (2011). Alone Together—Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, New York, p. 26.

[3]: See Nourbaksh (2011); and the work of the members of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics,

[4]:  See Seibt 2016a.

[5]:  See Seibt/Nørskov 2012, Nørskov 2016 and Rodogno (2016 and forthcoming).

[6]:  See Seibt (2016c and forthcoming).

[7]:  Analytical process ontology is part of “process philosophy,” a position in philosophy that has been marginalized in the history of Western thought but is currently gaining much attention in connection with scientific research on self-organization and complexity; for an introduction see Seibt (2012a).

[8]: See Seibt (2016b). 


Hakli, R./Seibt, J. (eds.), Sociality and Normativity for Robots—Philosophical Investigations, Springer (forthcoming).

Nourbakhsh, I. (2011), Robot Futures, MIT Press.

Nørskov, M. (2015) “Revisiting Ihde’s Fourfold “Technological Relationships”: Application and Modification.” Philosophy & Technology, 28: 189-207.

Nørskov, M. (ed.) (2016), Social Robots—Boundaries, Potentials, Challenges, Ashgate.

Rodogno, R. (2016), “Robots and the Limits of Morality,” in: Nørskov, M. (ed.) (2016), Social Robots—Boundaries, Potentials, Challenges, Ashgate, pp. 39-57.

Rodogno, R., (forthcoming), Social Robots, Fiction, and Sentimentality,” Ethics and Information Technology.

Seibt, J. (2012a), "Process Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Seibt J., Nørskov, M. (2012b) “Embodying the Internet: Towards the Moral Self via Communication Robots?” Philosophy & Technology 25, 285-307

Seibt, J.  (2016a), “Integrative Social Robotics—A New Method Paradigm to Solve the Description Problem and the Regulation Problem?”  in: Nørskov, M./J. Seibt, What Social Robots Can and Should Do­—Proceedings of Robophilosophy 2016 / Transor 2016, forthcoming.

Seibt, J.  (2016b). “Towards an Ontology of Simulated Social Interactions—Varieties of the ‘As-If’ for Robots and Humans,” Hakli, R./Seibt, J. (eds.), Sociality and Normativity for Robots—Philosophical Investigations, Springer (forthcoming).

Seibt, J. (2016c) “Robophilosophy,” in: Braidotti, R. / Hlavajova, M. Posthuman Glossary, forthcoming.

Seibt, J., Hakli, R., Nørskov, M. (eds.) (forthcoming). Robophilosophy—Philosophy of, for, and by Social Robotics. MIT-Press. 

Seibt, J., R. Hakli, M. Nørskov (2014) Social Robots and the Future of Social Relations--Proceedings of Robophilosophy 2014, IOS Press, Amsterdam, Netherlands.