Social Robots and the City: Conceptions of Space in the Rise of Artificially Intelligent Machines

I am beginning a new research project on the rapidly expanding field of social robotics and its impacts (both present and future) on the everyday processes of urban life. While, until recently, developments in robotics and artificial intelligence had permeated only very well-defined, controlled spaces—such as factories—robots are increasingly developed for use in the spaces of everyday life—from the purportedly ‘private’ spaces of the home to the ‘public’ spaces of the city. Cities like Dubai have begun experimenting with robot police officers, while elsewhere social robots are taking on new tasks in hospitality, education, and care work. These developments, while touted by many governments and think tanks as key drivers of future economic growth, raise myriad political, social, and ethical questions calling for broader critical debate and discussion. This research will consist of two related components: one examining the processes of robotic design, experimentation, and development–with specific focus on how the development of social robots depends upon the theorization and codification of distinct conceptions of social space; and another focused on the deployment of social robots in everyday life, with a focus on the spaces of encounter between social robots and “human” populations differentiated by gender, race, sexuality, clase, ability, and other markers of difference.

Techno-Social Entanglements and Contested Urban Futures: Producing Space, Subjectivities, and Economies in the Digital City

This project examines the emerging and evolving role of digitial technologies in constituting cities and urban life, with a particular focus on alternatives to dominant “smart city” discourses and programs. I conducted ethnographic research in Barcelona around the notion of “technological sovereignty” as it is employed by autonomous community organizations–and increasingly by the municipal government–as a way to rethink “human” relationships to technology and dominant models of urban development. The project received funding from the Fulbright Commission, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Social Science Research Council’s DPDF Program, and the UA Social and Behavioral Science Research Institute (SBSRI).

Zones for Economic Development and Employment (ZEDE): Performing and Contesting Libertarian ‘Development’ in Post-Coup Honduras

My earlier research focused on the contested political processes around the creation of a utopian libertarian enclave on the southern coast of Honduras, known as the Zone for Economic Development and Employment (ZEDE). The ZEDE is based on an “enclave libertarian” ideology that calls for the fracturing of exisiting nation-states into smaller, more flexible territorial units managed by privatized “government service providers” and populated by a mobile population that is called to “vote with its feet”–or move to the jurisdiction that best suits its preferences. In the years following the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras, advocates of this enclave libertarian ideology began partnering with the Honduran government to create the first libertarian enclave in Honduran territory. My research examined the abstract enclave libertarian vision behind the project, as well as the political and legal processes through which ZEDE development has been pursued and contested. The project received funding from the Tinker Foundation and the UA Social and Behavioral Science Research Institute (SBSRI).

The Shifting Assemblages of Outer Space Activities

I have also conducted research on the neoliberalization of outer space activities in collaboration with Dr. Katherine Sammler at California State University Maritime. We examine Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial “spaceport”, in Truth of Consequences, New Mexico, as the materialization of broader shifts in the political economy, geopolitics, and cultural imaginaries of outer space activity. As large corporations–often owned by entrepreneurs from the digital technology sector–take on new roles in outer-space-oriented research and development, and create new outer space markets around transportation, logistics, tourism, and other sectors, states come to take on new roles as regulators, financiers of vital infrastructure, and guarantors or property rights. Critically reflecting on these shifts, we contrast the dominant state and corporate model with the cultural imaginaries and material practices of automous space movements and open-source rocketry associations, like the Automous Space Agency Network (ASAN), the Association of Autonomous Astronauts (AAA), and Copenhagen Suborbitals.


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