Robotic Touch

‘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 role of manual tactile labour change, questions will continue to be raised of a social, political, and ethical nature. 

The case study explored how emerging robotic technologies influence the social and sensory qualities of touch in the context of industrial work. Its objectives were to: 

  1. Map if/how touch is being reshaped as robots are tasked with new jobs, and take part in new collaborations; 
  2. Generate empirical insights on how new robotic technologies can remediate touch with wider social and sensory implications;  
  3. Investigate how workers relate to, and imagine, their tactile labour differently as new robotic technologies enter their workplace; 
  4. Develop methodological approaches and conceptual apparatus for researching robotic touch.

We pursued these objectives through a multi-sited sensory ethnography, becoming immersed in industrial settings (a Waste Management Centre and a Glass Factory where advanced robots had recently been introduced) and robotics communities that imagine and create industrial robots for the future. Through fieldwork we developed an analytical approach that applies three “filters” to grasp the complexity of the social and sensorial dynamics of touch in situ. This allowed us to generate contextually rich and dynamic empirical accounts of robotic touch whilst teasing out cross-cutting themes. 

Relevant Publications:

Barker, N., Jewitt, C., & Price, S. (2020). Becoming in touch with industrial robots through ethnography. ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, 128–130.

Barker, N., & Jewitt, C. (2021). Filtering Touch: An Ethnography of Dirt, Danger, and Industrial Robots. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 23–29.