Conceptualizing Robotic Agency: Social Robots in Elder Care in Contemporary Japan

Key information

5:00 pm to 7:00 pm
Virtual Event

About this event

Dr Anne Aronsson (Yale University)


Japan is a hyper-aging society; it has one of the highest life expectancies in the world and is undergoing a demographic transition that Western nations have yet to experience. The Japanese government is encouraging robotic solutions to address its elder care labor shortage, and authorities have therefore adopted an agenda of introducing social robots. However, increasing numbers of people in Japan are becoming emotionally attached to anthropomorphic machines, and their introduction into elder care may thus be perceived as contentious by elders, caregivers, and family members. By exploring human engagement with social robots in the care context, this presentation argues that rapid technological advances in the twenty-first century will see robots achieve some level of agency, contributing to human society by carving out unique roles for themselves and by bonding with humans. Nevertheless, the questions remain of whether there should be a difference between humans attributing agency to a being and those beings having the inherent ability to produce agency and how we might understand that difference if unable to access the minds of other humans, let alone nonhumans, some of which are not even alive in the classical sense. Using the example of an interaction between an elderly woman and a social robot, I engage with these questions; discuss linguistic, attributed, and inherent agencies; and suggest that a processual type of agency might be most appropriate for understanding human–robot interaction. Machines are already embedded in our lives, but, as we start to treat machines as if they are almost human, we may begin to develop habits that cause us to treat humans as almost machines. We therefore need to consider not only what social robots can do, both now and in the future, but also what humans will become by increasingly forming relationships with machines. I suggest that elderly people can develop an emotional attachment to social robots by attributing agency to them, and, as machine-learning routines grow more sophisticated, those robots will eventually interact with humans in such an insightful way that the division between attributed and inherent nonhuman agency might become meaningless.

Speaker Biography

Anne Aronsson is an anthropologist of Japan and obtained her PhD in socio-cultural anthropology from Yale University. She was a postdoctoral fellow with a Suslowa-Postdoc-Fellowship grant at the University of Zurich in Switzerland where she taught a seminar course “Global Processes in East Asia.” At Yale she works on her postdoctoral project on elder care in Japan and the use of robotic care devices, with a focus on social robots and emerging emotional technologies as well as teach two courses. Anne has authored several publications, including “Social Robots in Elderly Care: The Turn Toward Machines in Contemporary Japan,” in the special issue “Relations, Entanglements, and Enmeshments of Humans and Things: A Materiality Perspective” in Japanese Review of Cultural Anthropology ; “Conceptualizing Robotic Agency: Social Robots in Elder Care in Contemporary Japan” and introductory chapter in the special issue “Finding Agency in Nonhumas” published in Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism based on an international conference organized together with Fynn Holm and Melissa Kaul at the University of Zurich; “Multispecies Entanglements in the Virosphere: Rethinking the Anthropocene in Light of the 2019 Coronavirus Outbreak,” co-authored with Fynn and published in The Anthropocene Review ; and her monograph Career Women in Contemporary Japan: Pursuing Identities, Fashioning Lives published with Routledge Contemporary Japan Series.


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Organiser: SOAS Japan Research Centre

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