Error message

  • Unable to create CTools CSS cache directory. Check the permissions on your files directory.
  • Unable to create CTools CSS cache directory. Check the permissions on your files directory.
  • The file could not be created.

How Robots Have Politics

Professor Rob Sparrow

In an influential paper, published in 1980, Langdon Winner asked “Do artifacts have politics?” and concluded “yes!” In this presentation, which draws on my research on the ethics of autonomous vehicles, military robotics, sex robots, and aged care robots, I will explore how robots have politics. I will argue that the embodied and interactive nature of robots means that they have more politics than other sorts of artefacts. Robots have more — and more complex — “affordances” than other technologies.

Robots will embody and reflect the intentions of their designers in ways that are very unlikely to be transparent to those who use or encounter them. The choices made by engineers will often have consequences for the options available to the users of robots and will in turn shape relationships between users and those around them. The power this grants designers is itself politically significant. Because, increasingly, robots will occupy the same environments as human beings, and play important social and economic roles in those environments, human-robot relations will become crucial sites of political contestation. The social policy choices necessary to realise the benefits of robots in many domains will inevitably also be political choices, with implications for relationships between stakeholders. Humanoid robots, and their behaviour, will have representational content, with implications for the ways in which people understand and treat each other. More generally, to the extent to which we anticipate that the introduction of widespread automation will produce a Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is vital that we ask who is making this revolution, as well as who will flourish — and who will suffer — if it occurs.


BA (Hons) (Melb.), PhD (A.N.U.)

Rob Sparrow is a Professor in the Philosophy Program, a Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, and an adjunct Professor in the Monash Bioethics Centre, at Monash University, where he works on ethical issues raised by new technologies. He has published extensively on topics as diverse as the ethics of military robotics, Just War Theory, human enhancement, and nanotechnology. He is a co-chair of the IEEE Technical Committee on Robot Ethics and was one of the founding members of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

Date & time

12–1.30pm 1 Nov 2017


Room:Level 2, N224 Computer Systems Area


Professor Rob Sparrow


Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing