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Human-robot interaction and psychoanalysis

Abstract

Psychological attitudes towards service and personal robots are selectively examined from the vantage point of psychoanalysis. Significant case studies include the uncanny valley effect, brain-actuated robots evoking magic mental powers, parental attitudes towards robotic children, idealizations of robotic soldiers, persecutory fantasies involving robotic components and systems. Freudian theories of narcissism, animism, infantile complexes, ego ideal, and ideal ego are brought to bear on the interpretation of these various items. The horizons of Human-robot Interaction are found to afford new and fertile grounds for psychoanalytic theorizing beyond strictly therapeutic contexts.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In adults, the “[…] emotional attitude towards their dead […], once a highly ambiguous and ambivalent one, has been toned down in the higher strata of the mind into an unambiguous feeling of piety” (Freud 1919, p. 243).

  2. 2.

    A fetish is an idealized representative of the maternal penis/phallus. In psychoanalysis, the term ‘phallus’ designates the symbolic role of the penis, whereas the latter is the anatomic organ. See (Freud 1923). The process leading to the formation of fetishes takes its origin in the infantile fantasy inducing children to believe that their mothers are omnipotent insofar as they are endowed with a penis/phallus too. See (Freud 1927).

  3. 3.

    Let us mention in passing that a robotic child fictitiously playing the role of penis may become a fetish, that is, a symbolic substitute for the omnipotent maternal phallus (see footnote 2), providing protection from castration threats and ensuing anxieties (see Chasseguet-Smirgel 1975). In this connection, it is worth noting that a robotic fetish is indefinitely reproducible, insofar as one can build many copies of the same robotic model, and increasingly powerful, insofar as one can iteratively upgrade the robotic model that one starts from.

  4. 4.

    At the time of extensive deployment of remote-controlled robots in the Iraqi war. These robots, originally designed to detect and detonate IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), were subsequently equipped with machine guns and grenade launchers. See (Singer 2009) pp. 21–32.

  5. 5.

    In psychoanalysis, the concept of object is a ramified and complex concept. For our present purposes, one should keep in mind that this concept is used in the context of both intra-personal relationships, involving internal objects, and inter-personal relationships, wherein the object stands for a person, another animate being or an inanimate being. Furthermore, objects in psychoanalytic theorizing are partial or total, real or imaginary.

  6. 6.

    See (Cordeschi 2002) for a fascinating account of this remarkable development in the history of technology.

  7. 7.

    Projective identification is a defence mechanism hypothesized by Melanie Klein. This mechanism involves an omnipotent fantasy enabling one to expel a split part of the self onto (parts of) other persons, who are subsequently identified with the projected parts. These expelled parts can be either “bad” and destructive or “good” and creative. This process impoverishes the ego insofar as the split parts are “transferred” outside and, therefore, subtracted from the subject. See (Klein 1946).

  8. 8.

    The Freudian notion of ideal ego, which inherits the omnipotence of primary narcissism, is connected with destructiveness reactions originating from frustrations occurring in the initial months of life and from corresponding recovery attempts. In contrast with this, the ego ideal is related to both libidinal and destructive impulsions of omnipotent infantile narcissism, and crucially relates to the identification with the paternal image taken as a model.

  9. 9.

    See footnote 3.

  10. 10.

    Tustin (1972) identifies autistic objects with parts of the child’s body or parts of the external world that the child experiences as if they were parts of his own body (often described as hard, cold, and mechanical objects extending one’s own body). These objects are repetitively manipulated in stereotyped and non-functional ways.

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Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful to Gregor Fitzi, Gemma Zontini, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Guglielmo Tamburrini.

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Scalzone, F., Tamburrini, G. Human-robot interaction and psychoanalysis. AI & Soc 28, 297–307 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-012-0413-3

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Keywords

  • Robotics
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Uncanny valley
  • Intentional stance
  • Narcissism
  • Ego ideal
  • Ideal ego
  • Infantile complexes