Could a Robot Replace an Anthropologist?

LiveScience (2 April 2009) reported about Adam the Robot Scientist of Abersystwythin University succeeding in creating and confirming a scientific hypothesis without human intervention. Adam predicted that in baker's yeast there are certain genes for specific enzymes encouraging biochemical reactions. The robot then ran experiments in its laboratory to test the hypothesis and analyzed the results.

Although hypothesis-producing robots are an "age-old" invention (since 2004), Adam is special because it can handle independent and automatized laboratory work. According to the computer scientist Ross King, in the future robots will become more widely applied as assistants in the routines and less-interesting tasks of laboratory scientists.

Now when do we anthropologists get our hypothesis-producing robots?! I would love to co-write an article with iMalinowski or Android Appadurai. Or, to get back on Earth, if a cyborg anthropologist is a tall order, it would definitely be interesting to use a robot in the field of, say, urban ethnography.

I can easily imagine an interactive robot such as the ones wondering around Incheon Airport, South Korea (see pic left) programmed to do participant-observation and interview people in a public space. Obviously, serious scrutiny of the method would be required but if low-cost and discreet robots were to be produced in the future, I'd see no problem in hiring a few. It would be fun too!

However, if robot-ethnographers are yet to take over, there is fortunately a lot of mixing between anthropologists and robots going on already. Many anthropologists such as Jennifer Robertson (Univ. of Michigan) and Kathleen Richardson (Univ. of Cambridge) are studying the human-robot interaction with fascinating results. It's definitely one of the major fields of anthropology's future!

So, if for now I can't enjoy the help of an ethnographer-robot I can at least study the emerging field of humans mingling with robots.

Read the LiveScience article on Adam here. See also the Mbnet article on the same in Finnish. Pic sources: Robot at Incheon Airport by Jukka Jouhki; Robertson with Asimo from (article orig. from The Daily Texan).

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