Let me set a scene: A woman kisses her baby’s head, stands up to give her husband, holding their child, a warm smile and comforting pat on the arm as she leaves the house. Moments later, the ubiquitous Alexa (complete with cheerfully neutral feminine voice) chimes in, “Here’s your reminder: Laura left a teething ring in the freezer.” Then, “Laura made a play date for three pm.” Then, “I’m reminding you: Laura loves you, and you’re doing a great job.” This commercial for Amazon’s home robot, alternately Echo/Alexa dependent upon your penchant for anthropomorphizing, displays the continued relationship between technology and gendered household labor by illustrating the embeddedness and invisibility of female emotional and mental labor involved in making life easier for others through the instrumentalization of technology broadly construed to make life easier for everyone. Despite the presentation of Alexa as an independent house helper, in the practice of this commercial she becomes a disembodied extension of the mother, infantilizing the father.
2019 seems to be the moment of the domestic robot, or robotic technologies which often utilize AI and which are designed to make home life and domestic labor easier for the user. Everywhere you look, advertisements boast the time and labor saving benefits of domestic robots. More and more often, these robots are becoming integrated into every day life: a recipe is pulled up by the user without any touch or effort of finding it themselves; an alarm is requested of the robot by a user; a ding notifies a user during work that their vacuuming for the day has been completed; blueberries are ordered by a rogue child. Why vacuum or take time to order your goods/set an alarm/add events to your calendar manually, when you can merely ask a robot to do it for you? These technologies advertise their ability to make life much easier for their users. As a function of this ‘ease’ of use, these robots are gathering information on the user throughout the course of every day living.
There are many potential courses of analysis delving into the dynamics of the underlying capitalist and financial motivations of this behavior; however, I am most interested in the social aspects of these robots. How do the robots come to “understand” their users through this attention to and analysis of them? How do users come to understand the function and usability of these devices in ways which create them as static objects in relation to the user’s subjectivity? How do interactions between these domestic robots and their users come to define domestic relationships, user subjectivity, and rules of interaction both inside and outside of the home?
These are many of the questions driving my exploration of domestic robots as social robots. Having access to the “space” of the Tactical Humanities Lab has provided me the opportunity to get down and dirty with some of these devices, in order to “play” and explore boundaries and relationalities of these devices with their users. Treated much like a multi-species participatory observational ethnography, I am hoping to expand my understanding of the ways in which these devices function with users, with each other, and with(in) their environments.
Jamie Steele is a doctoral student in Science and Technology Studies at RPI. Her research interests are the intersections of technoscience studies, feminist/queer inflected critical theory, psychoanalytic theory, and popular culture. In addition to her analytic work on the Alien films, she is currently exploring gendered aspects of embodiment and minds in the development of artificial intelligence.