Enchanting Robots: Intimacy, Magic, and Technology by Maciej Musiał

Review by Sue Smith

Enchanting Robots: Intimacy, Magic, and Technology is part of the book series, Social and Cultural Studies of Robots and AI, edited by Kathleen Richardson, Cathrine Hasse and Teresa Heffernan, and is written by Polish academic, Maciej Musiał. In Enchanting Robots Musiał discusses ‘magic’ and ‘magical thinking’ in order to critically assess humanity’s current and projected future relationship with newly emerging robot technology.  In brief, ‘magical thinking’ is the ability of humans to imaginatively confer human qualities onto ‘others,’ both animate and inanimate, creating meaningful and intimate connections with the non-human world.  It is through the theoretical lens of ‘magical thinking,’ which Musiał describes as an ongoing historical human process of enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment in pre-modern, modern and postmodern societies, that Enchanting Robots explores and examines humanity’s desire to re-enact personal moments of  ‘magic’ with the non-human ‘other’.  According to Musiał, understanding ‘magical thinking’ is of value because it helps explain how humans across differing cultures and time periods productively seek and create authentic moments of novelty and self worth that is of psychological benefit to both the individual and the wider community.  In particular, in the current climate of robot technology, which is creating a generation of love robots, sex robots and care robots in order to facilitate and promote new human relations with technology, Musiał argues that ‘magical thinking’ in today’s western world demands careful consideration for establishing important ethical foundations for the use and acceptance of non-human partners and carers in medicine and social care and across society in general.

Sequentially, Enchanting Robots consists of an ‘Introduction’ and four chapters starting with chapter 2, ‘Robots Enchanting Humans’; chapter 3, ‘Humans Enchanting Robots’; chapter 4, ‘Disenchanting and Re-Enchanting in Modernity’; and finally chapter 5, ‘In Lieu of a Conclusion: Where Will We Go from Here?’  In the ‘Introduction,’ Musiał begins by clarifying his position on the subject of human and robot relationships and outlines the content and argument of each chapter.  As an overview, Musiał’s intention is not to argue for or against human machine interactions but rather to understand how human thinking can make such interactions possible.  Furthermore, Musiał is not interested in using popular cultural references such as science fiction and news media reports in order to explain ‘magical thinking’ and its contemporary relevance to humanity’s desire for intimacy with technology.  Instead, in order to analyze the rapidly emerging phenomenon of human robot interactions, he turns to philosophy and the academic field of social and cultural studies.  In particular, Musiał is keen to dispel conventional ideas of ‘magical thinking’ as merely primitive or childlike—regressive and irrational.  Importantly, he wishes to understand what makes ‘magical thinking’ possible in a modern rational world so that he can explore current emerging trends in robot technology.

In chapter 2, ‘Robots Enchanting Humans,’ Musiał observes how humans have come to perceive ‘robots [as being] magical enough to develop intimate relationships with them’ (11). Here Musiał turns to the field of ‘robot ethics,’ in order to evaluate the moral purpose of developing AI and robot technology in modern society.  It is through the lens of  ‘robot ethics’ that Musiał carefully examines both the response of ‘enthusiasts,’ who promote the beneficence of robots to human society, and the response of ‘skeptics,’ who doubt the advantage of robots and AI technology.  For example, as Musiał’ explains ‘enthusiasts’ argue that robots can improve human relations and quality of life by providing much needed care and companionship for both adults and children in social, residential and hospital care.   Also as Musiał points out enthusiasts are keen advocates of AI and robot technology for its potential to relieve loneliness and anxiety in individuals who struggle with intimate human relations and, as a result of robot interaction, may even develop and enhance their human ability to express empathy.  In contrast, as Musiał reveals, ‘skeptics’ worry about how robots might ultimately degrade human relations by reifying behaviour and attitudes that perpetuate unequal relations between humans and non-human ‘Others’.  Overall Musiał’s aim is ‘to understand where these positions come from and where they might lead’ (11) in order to understand how robots gain value and acceptance or are treated with suspicion and are rejected by human society and what this might mean to the development of human robot relations in the future.

In chapter 3, ‘Humans Enchanting Robots,’ Musiał switches to how humans are enchanting robots (which, he argues, is only possible because humans think of robots as magical enough to be enchanted by them), by drawing upon anthropological, psychological and philosophical accounts of ‘magical thinking’ in texts both classic and contemporary.  Specifically Musiał shifts away from human reactions with robots to focus on human reflections about robots.  Here Musiał wishes to ‘delve into reevaluations’ of magic and magical thinking in order to ‘focus on shifts in its relationship with modern rational thinking’ that range temporally ‘from [the] second part of the nineteenth century to the present time’ (63).  Musiał’s reevaluation of magical thinking turns upon the theory of ‘syncretism,’ which is the psychological state of ‘non-alternativity’—the ability of humans to ‘undifferentiate’ between the self and the non-self, a process that involves drawing ‘no distinction between the real and the unreal’ (78-81). Through syncretism, Musiał discusses and explains humanity’s unique ability to demonstrate empathy towards robots and to magically think them as in some way ‘alive’.  Furthermore, through the theory of syncretism Musiał is able to dispel the myth that rational thought is simply ‘progressive and useful’ and magical thought ‘primitive and useless’ (106).  As Musiał concludes, in the current climate of new technology, in which ‘magical thinking’ offers the potential to imagine novel relations with non-human ‘Others’, modern rational thought is not as universally useful as it is so often perceived.  Instead, as Musiał argues, it is through the critical lens of magical thinking that it is possible to re-evaluate humanity’s disenchantment with modern rational thought by exposing its limitations and tendency to exclude and objectify ‘Others’ as it dominates and exploits humans, non-human beings and the environment.

Musiał’s ‘thinking’ about robots navigates between the under critical thinking of enthusiasts and the over critical thinking of skeptics in order to outline the value of ‘magical thinking’ in the contemporary world and provide a pathway for establishing ethical and equitable human/robot relations for the future.  In chapter 4, ‘Disenchanting and Re-enchanting in Modernity,’ Musiał expands his discussion of ‘magical thinking’ and human reactions with, and reflections about, robots within a more general framework of contemporary Western culture.  Drawing upon the work of Max Weber, Musiał examines human ‘disenchantment of and with modernity’ in order to understand the ‘complementary’ phenomenon of ‘re-enchantment’ (116). In Musiał’s analysis for instance, he states that ‘[d]isenchantment is closely connected to processes of secularization and rationalization’ (117)—a process that has led to Western culture becoming so disenchanted by the modern world that there is now a desire for magic and re-enchantment.  Fortunately, as Musiał reveals, disenchantment is an incomplete project, which means that magic and re-enchantment have not completely disappeared from Western society.  As Musiał states, despite Western humanity’s disenchantment with the rational modern world, re-enchantment still ‘belongs to human nature’ (119).  Finally, by turning to the work of Mark Coeckelbergh, Musiał concludes that ‘the presence of both rational and romantic aspects in our interactions with and attitudes toward technology’ are ‘two sides of the same modern coin’ (121).  Consequently, in Musiał’s findings, magical thinking is still present and possible in contemporary society and has become culturally acceptable and normal.

Finally, returning to the key concerns of Enchanting Robots, which is to explore the development and impact of care robots, sex robots and love robots in Western society, Musiał discusses in depth the possibilities of magic and magical thinking in the creation of novel intimate relationships with new AI and robotic technology.  Throughout his book Musiał is even handed in his exploration of the limitations and potentiality of new technology to provide love and care for humans alleviating loneliness, anxiety and stress for those who are either in need of social and medical care, or who find it difficult to navigate the complex social codes of human relationships in the modern world.  In the final chapter, ‘In Lieu of a Conclusion: Where Will We Go from Here?’, Musiał reiterates and sums up the key points and questions raised in his book about intimacy, magic and magical thinking, objectively presenting them to the reader as a suggested pathway through the impasse of questions that repeatedly ask: will robot technology degrade humankind or will it enhance human relations?  Instead, Musiał initiates a much more useful debate about technology in order to initiate ethical and practical thinking about robots and their impact and place in society and culture.  As Musiał states in his final comment on magical thinking, intimacy and technology: ‘We should consider, […] where we want the future to take us and futures we wish to avoid as well as where the futures may take us despite our wishes’ (153).  Enchanting Robots is an academic book for professionals working in technology and robot engineering, medical humanities, disability studies and social and cultural studies.  It is a sophisticated reading of contemporary studies in AI and robot technology and is pathfinding in thinking about human robot relations for a contemporary and future world.

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