WHY RESEARCH THE SOCIAL IMPACTS OF ROBOTICS AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI)?
Investment, research and development in robotics and AI technologies is an essential component of Australia's much discussed transition from a resources to a knowledge based economy. It is a transition that is occurring to some extent within all OECD member states. As with previous large-scale economic transitions, the move towards more knowledge based and high-tech economies is likely to cause significant social disruptions, not the least of which involves the widespread threat to jobs. A recent Oxford University study even predicted that almost 50% of existing jobs in the UK are at risk over the next two decades as a result of robotics (Frey and Osborne 2013).
Despite the centrality of robotics and AI to contemporary economic and social change, it is a subject that has received only scant attention by social scientists. This is a huge oversight because - as luminaries such as Marx, Baudrillard, Heidegger and Foucault, amongst other, have shown - the role of technology is crucial in apprehending how different modes of power operate and how societies are transformed. Indeed as sociological research on techno-social relations has shown, the social and the technical are not mutually exclusive but must be investigated in terms of their relational constitution (Law and Hassard 1999; Callon 1991). Furthermore, most of the existent literature on automation and robotics hails from other parts of the world. Whilst there are a small number of foresight studies under way in Australia focusing on future computer needs (AAS, 2014), the potential social impacts are not evaluated.
In order to fill this gap in the research, this project will use the sociology of mobilities as a lens for analyzing the impacts that modern robotics and AI have on the people involved in their production, design, and uptake. The sociology of mobilities has the necessary theoretical tools required to study this complex issue, as it engages with different theories of social change, from actor network theories to theories of practice and affect (Urry 2007; Elliott and Urry 2010; Bissell 2010). An expected outcome of this research is the transformation of the field of sociology of mobilities, by providing it with an integrated approach to understanding the social impact of robotics and AI. This research will thus lay the foundation for future sociological analyses of how robotics transforms social relations and enhance identities and employment.
In addition, this research will have a number of economic, social and cultural benefits. It will for example, help inform social policy responses to the application of AI and enhanced robotics in the workplace, which underpins the economic success and social relations of increasing numbers of Australians. It will also make an important contribution to regional Australia, as the digital revolution in mobility, not only has policy implications for urban cities, but rural and regional towns.