From the InTouch project to Living with Living Machines

Guest post, by Ned Barker (@nedbarker10 & @BiohybridB).

Today on the 1st of October 2021, my focus switches from InTouch to a new project, ‘Biohybrid bodies: a sociological framework for living with Living Machines’, supported by the Leverhulme Trust and UCL’s Institute of Education. 

Besides introducing the project, this thinking piece charts some of the key the ideas encountered through the InTouch Robotic Touch case study that inspired its formation. I will touch on method, the concepts of Living Machines and Biohybridity, and three contexts of interest I’ll be exploring over the next three years.

Origins and Method

In 2020 we were interested in a new generation of industrial robots that feature advanced capabilities to sense, move, collaborate, and even ‘learn’. We designed a multi-sited sensory ethnography to explore if and how the emergence of these robots affected the social and sensory dynamics of tactile labour across industry. 

Our method privileged participation in touching and being touched, guided by a notion of becoming a tactile apprentice [you can read more here or here, or listen to our podcast here]. This involved working alongside workers and robots, where possible. 

Figure 1: Picking on a waste line next to an AI picking robot that can identify waste materials and sort them

Routes to sociosensorial knowledge through ethnographic participation led to important insights in this study. In other InTouch case studies we have utilised collaborative approaches to explore digital touch with Human-Robot Interaction researchers, artists, and technology users/designers. I’m aiming to extend these participatory and collaborative methodologies to my new project. ‘The body’ will, however, replace touch as the central unit of analysis as I become immersed in three contrasting sociotechnical contexts, which I’ll introduce shortly this post. 

In addition to doing fieldwork in industrial settings, I was engaging with robotics companies and networks. Through these activities and continued reading I encountered the term ‘Living Machines’. 

Encountering Living Machines and the idea of Biohybridity

The term ‘Living Machines’ has appeared in the last decade, announcing a science to understand and harness the convergence between biology and technology. This banner includes projects that create new technologies inspired by nature (biomimetics), projects that engineer/orchestrate living matter (synthetic biology), and projects that intimately couple biological entities with manufactured components for new biohybrid systems.

Two cornerstone readings provide neat introductions to the field…

Prescott, Lepora & Verschure’s (2018) ‘Living Machines’ provides an introduction to biomimetic and biohybrid systems, while Hockfield’s (2019) ‘The Age of Living Machines’ charts the history of living machines and anticipates our future with them.

You may also like to watch…

Prescott’s keynote at Living Machines Conference 2021: ‘A Brief History of Living Machines’
Hockfield discussing her book ‘The Age of Living Machines’

The intimate combinations of living and technological systems captured my interest. It is evident, as Szollosy wrote in the handbook above (Prescott et al., 2018) that, “We already live in worlds populated with living machines, some taking the forms of robots or AIs, but also, more commonly, human beings ourselves, augmented, improved, supplemented by technology” (p. 539). Indeed, we have been living with increasingly intimate body-technology relations for some time (van Est noticed this back in 2014). And yet we are witnessing extraordinary technological development in the field (see examples below), some of which are beginning to leak into a range of sociopolitical contexts.

Aware of such developments and by encountering state-of-the-art robotic, virtual and augmented technologies during my time on the InTouch project, new research questions formed: what might biohybrid systems become – what might they do – how might they affect our bodies and lives?  

Three Contexts of Interest for the ‘Biohybrid Bodies’ project 

To explore these questions my project consists of ethnographic studies stretching across three contexts of interest. Together these will inform the development of a sociological research framework for living with Living Machines. To ensure that the framework is built upon an awareness of technological realities, I will strengthen my engagement with networks creating new biohybrid systems. 

Advanced biohybrid systems are developed for, and beginning to appear in, a range of domains (e.g., education, warfare, and health) and are interacting with complex political issues (e.g., governance and sustainability). This project targets three unique sociopolitical contexts, introduced below, where biohybrid technologies are entering and laced with disruptive potentials. They were purposefully selected for their contrasting dominant orientations towards the body (performance, expression, productivity) and have yet to be empirically studied.

Context 1: Sport 

In Sport bodies perform. Athletes’ bodies are always being fine-tuned: performance enhancement techniques, technologies and training methods are rooted in a biomechanical dissection of the body. The encroachment of technologies (and pharmaceuticals) into sporting arenas has always pushed the boundaries of what sport is, and what is deemed possible or indeed natural. This can bring attention to certain bodies and practices in socially and politically charged ways. Emerging biohybrid systems are entering these spaces[1]Cybathlon, for example, adopts a 4-year Olympic cycle as teams prepare to ‘compete’ in 6 disciplines.

Context 2: Art

In Art bodies express. Bodies have long been a focal point when responding to, creatively interacting with, or resisting the concept of biohybrid systems and Living Machines. There are a range of contemporary artists that explore and provoke through their practice. Here are some selected examples.

Context 3: Industry 

In Industry, bodies produce. Workers are being inserted into the mechanisms and machines of production in new ways. Biohybrid systems are seeking to harness the productive potentials of new and intimate body-technology configurations. Exoskeletons, for example, are entering industrial settings.    

Want to follow the Biohybrid Bodies project?

This thinking piece has delivered a whistle-stop tour of a project in its infancy. The ideas, methods, and fieldwork sites will continue to develop over the next three years. Next steps include: (1) visiting leading laboratories where biohybrid systems are being developed to deepen my understanding the technological field; (2) mapping the social and technological landscape; and (3) refining fieldsites and methods. To keep up-to-date and to join the conversation you can follow the project on Twitter @Biohybrid B – I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

[1] this article in discusses some of the wider sociopolitical context that are disrupted by ‘techno-enhancement’

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