Soft Robotics

Although research on incorporating soft materials into robots has been conducted since the 1970s, the term ‘robot’ has until recently mostly been used to describe rigid mechatronic systems (Wang, Nurzaman & Iida 2014: 196). However, today one needs to distinguish between hard and soft robots (Rus & Tolley 2015: 468). The latter are constructed from elastic and deformable materials (Laschi, Mazzolai & Cianchetti 2016: 1) and often draw inspiration from the bodies of biological organisms. Like these, a soft robot would ideally be able to react and adapt to dramatic and unforeseen changes posed by its surroundings (Iida & Laschi 2011: 99).


Where it is usually possible to use computer-aided engineering (CAE) to calculate the actuation parameters for traditional robots, this is not yet possible for soft robots due to the complexity in simulating soft and elastic materials (Marchese, Katzschmann & Rus 2015: 9). Hence, it can be argued that a soft robot designer must gain knowledge of the materials and technologies through a “(...) reflective conversation with the materials of a situation” (Schön 1992: 5). This is achieved by performing physical experiments and obtaining knowledge through “reflection-in-action” and “reflection-on-action” (Schön 1983), the thoughts and insights gathered during or after the experiments which invite design changes, and have the ability to impact how future experiments are conducted. Through this practice, a material “back talk” (Schön 1987), a metaphorical conversation with the materials of a situation that respond to the designer's actions and guide her further moves or give new directions to the process, is cultivated in order to acquire knowledge around the materials. In that sense, the field of soft robotics requires an experimental hands on-approach that shares traits with artistic practices focusing on material investigations and the aesthetic qualities of different types of matter.


Roboticists have suggested that to humans, soft robots might appear “friendlier”, more “natural” and more “life-like” than traditional robots (Laschi, Mazzolai & Cianchetti 2016: 1). In other words, their material qualities and aesthetics have been suggested to potentially alter how robots are perceived and intuitively interacted with.


As robots are increasingly implemented in various social constellations, it can be discussed whether the general definition of a robot as a machine programmed to carry out tasks without human intervention still holds true. As argued by e.g. Arnold & Scheutz (2017: 2), there are more factors to consider when implementing robots into human everyday life than safety, durability and efficiency. These include the potential cultural impact and ethical challenges it could have to implement soft robots for e.g. domestic or care usage (Arnold & Scheutz 2017: 5). Hence, soft robotics need to be studied from other perspectives than purely technical ones, which can accommodate nature-cultural and aesthetic concerns (Jørgensen 2017: 7). For a thorough review of this emergent site of practice and research, we refer the reader to Jørgensen (2019).


Umwelt: a subjective perception of the surrounding world

The observation that changes rendered to an organism’s body can have great impact on its perception of the world relates directly to Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of 'Umwelt' (surrounding-world) (Uexküll 1909: 6).


Uexküll’s late research focused on the behavior of living organisms as well as their constituent parts, e.g. how organisms relate to each other within a particular setting and the ways in which cells and organs interact within a body (Uexküll 1987: 147). Uexküll concluded that the essential activities of animals, circle around perceiving and acting.  What an organism perceives becomes its perceptual world and what a subject does becomes its effector world - two worlds that together form the Umwelt (Uexküll 1957: 6). An organism’s Umwelt is driven by its physiological design, that has been adapted to its physical habitat in order to obtain the necessary supplies for its survival (Beloff 2014: 2) such as certain nutrients. Every organism possesses certain receptive organs ('Merkorgans') to perceive the environment. As an early pioneer of biosemiotics (Buchanan 2008: 8), Uexküll described how the sensory impressions are interpreted as signals and signs and thereby come to affect an entity’s subjective Umwelt to a degree that no objective reality can be ascribed to any one entity’s Umwelt. This notion anticipates and aligns with critical posthumanism’s rejection of human exceptionalism – each entity lives in a world composed of subjective decodings of signs and signals, not even conspecifics share the exact same Umwelt (Uexküll 1957: 71-72).


A nonhuman organism’s Umwelt can only be perceived and interpreted within the boundaries of human experience and a human Umwelt (Uexküll 1987: 163, 171). An interested observer must make sure that what she percieves in her experiental world is also possible for the living entity under observation to perceive. Effectively this means that the observer will never be able to truly understand the entity that is analyzed. Yet by examining how other living creatures such as ticks or birds perceive the world (see Uexküll 1957), human observers are forced to look at familiar environments or situations with nonhuman eyes (Agamben 2003: 45).

Posthuman Studies and Posthuman Entities

The posthuman: exploring the present future of humans

The stance that ‘human nature’ is not simply natural, but dynamic and historical, was  central to the antihumanism that emerged within the humanities and social sciences  during the 1960s (Lippert-Rasmussen, Rosendahl Thomsen & Wamberg 2012: 7). The notion of a posthuman entity also invokes more recent strands of philosophical posthumanism, that seek to critically reflect on and subvert anthropocentric modernist ‘truths’ that assumed universally applicable ethics and unity in terms of what it means to be human (Bolter, 2016: 2). The idea that humans are unique creatures – human exceptionalism – and the idea that humans have the right to control the natural world – human instrumentalism – are both discarded (Nayar 2014: 19), and posthumanist theory posits that there is no single essence of human life. Another agenda is to map out the biological, mechanical and communicational processes that can remove the human being from its privileged position in relation to meaning, information and cognition established by anthropocentricity (Wolfe 2009: xii). Critical posthumanism thus challenges the traditional boundaries that are taken to separate the human, the animal and the technological (Bolter 2016: 1,7).


Whereas critical posthumanism’s deconstruction of Enlightenment humanism’s claim of universality and unity could be seen as a mainly conceptual endeavor, it aligns with a wider field of posthuman studies that operate by mixing both theory and practice. This undertaking is often aimed at raising questions of whether novel technologies and inventions might change the human species to a degree that it becomes differentiated from the human presently living (Lippert-Rasmussen, Rosendahl Thomsen & Wamberg 2012: 7). In such contexts, the figure of the posthuman generates scenarios that allow speculations on what core that can be seen as human and what is ethically feasible (Lippert-Rasmussen, Rosendahl Thomsen & Wamberg 2012: 9). Through addressing biological and technological reconceptualizations of life, this work complicates any sharp division between humans, animals, and machines and rejects human exceptionalism (Oppermann 2016: 25). The notion of the posthuman thus implies that human and nonhuman actors are networked with each other, and that the human cannot be defined in a separate ontological zone, but emerges as a hybrid being. Hence, the notion of a posthuman condition does not entail the end of humanity, but instead the end of a certain conception of the human being (Hayles 1999: 286).


The posthuman body

Enlightenment humanism was based on Cartesian dualism and its division between the immaterial mind and the material body. The argument behind this was that the essence of the human was based in the rational mind or soul, which was taken to exist distinct from the human body (Nayar 2014: 16). Posthumanism and the concept of the posthuman rejects this idea by reiterating that humans are first and foremost embodied entities (Bolter 2016: 1). This view is rooted in, inter alia, the observation that the human body is the result of more than thousand years of evolutionary history, which logically must affect human behavior at every level of thought and action (Hayles 1999: 284). Yet our seemingly fixed and stable bodies are not constant or predetermined. Instead, a body is continuously formed by its molecular connections and the environment in which it is embedded (Parikka 2010: xxiv). Bodily knowledge influences an individual’s cognition – the mind and the material body are tightly coupled. 

Hence, existing literature on the posthuman condition remarks on how, at present, embodied awareness can be extended in local and material ways through novel technologies and their associated practices (Hayles 1999: 291). Technological and anthropogenic artifacts in turn alter existing notions of what constitutes the human and (human) reality. This raises the question of how subjectivity is inflected by technological mediations (Verbeek 2007). Although the posthuman might sound like an entity from a future scenario, discourses on the posthuman argue that human beings have thus already become or have always been posthuman. 

Thus, humanity reflexively comes to be through specific historical technologies as human beings would not have been the same without going through a specific contingent technological realization (Verbeek 2008: 388). In contemporary Western societies, this entwinement is materially instantiated in for instance that we are “(...) inoculated at birth, continue throughout our lives to take highly engineered pills, wear clothes, sport spectacles, and chew our cooked, industrialized food with augmented and reinforced teeth” (Pettman 2011: 6-7). Hence, we see that, here as well as elsewhere, human life  is always-already technological, which makes it impossible to speak of a ‘natural’ human being, if this means a human devoid of a reflexive technological molding.