‘Industry 4.0’ contains a new generation of industrial robots that feature advanced capabilities to sense, move, collaborate and even ‘learn’. This opens up new possibilities for ‘robotic touch’ across industrial settings and within labour processes and provides a timely backdrop for this case study. Technological advancements allow for the automation of once manual forms of work as robots take on jobs that require the touching of dirty and dangerous materials – teleoperated robots can displace touch by creating distance between workers and these materials. Closer forms of human-robot collaboration are on the horizon with the potential to reshape how highly repetitive touch tasks are undertaken, and by whom. Putting industrial robots to work beyond assembly lines enables them to be integrated into relatively unstructured environments to perform evermore complex and varied tasks. The development and integration of industrial robots is likely to reshape the tactile landscapes of industrial work, possibly in transformative ways. The considerable level of multi-national company investment in industrial robotics suggests that the tactile transformation within industry is likely to flourish, and expand. Critically, as industries transition and the digital capacities, and the role of touch change, questions will continue to be raised of a social, political, and ethical nature. Such emerging questions will (re)form the cultural narratives that perpetually accompany industrial revolutions and robotic development.
The case study aims to contribute to understanding how emerging robotic technologies influence the social and sensory qualities of touch in the context of work. Its objectives are to:
- Explore the social implications of robotic touch in industrial settings;
- Generate detailed description of how touch is being reshaped as robots are tasked with new jobs, and take part in new collaborations;
- Gain insight on how workers relate to, think about, articulate and practice touch differently as a result of new robotic technologies entering their workplace;
- Develop methodological approaches and conceptual apparatus for researching robotic touch.
We have chosen to use a multi-sited sensory ethnography methodology to generate contextually rich and dynamic empirical accounts of robotic touch, that attend to the social qualities of touch as it is digitally mediated. Five sites have been selected to explore how working environments are being refigured, on social and sensory planes, in light of new possibilities for robotic touch.
Site 1: Max-AI is a sorting robot that GreenRecycling have integrated into their waste management centre. At this site, we are seeking to understand how this robot transforms social and sensory landscapes when dirty touch tasks are outsourced.
Site 2: The development of wearable robotics, such as exoskeletons, offers possibilities for construction workers to develop intimate human-robot partnerships and perform tasks differently. At this site, we are researching the introduction and in-situ use of exoskeletons on a construction site.
Site 3: We are exploring the changing role of touch on construction sites where robotic technologies are being used for in-situ fabrication assisting builders in unstructured environments.
Site 4: We are exploring touch interactions between collaborative robots (Cobots) and staff in manufacturing contexts as they work alongside one another in close-quarters.
Site 5: Shadow Robot, provides a future facing engineering and development environment through which our ethnography will enable us to gain insight into how they envision, and plan for, the future of robotic touch in industrial contexts.
Immersing ourselves in these contexts will enable us to explore the current varied expressions of robotic touch, its future directions and social impacts. While we anticipate that each site may raise specific themes in relation to the sensory and social implications for touch, we will identify cross-cutting strands which when analytically woven will provide an understanding of robotic touch in industry.