Musings on the Workshop on Intimate Technology at PHTR’18

by Gijs


One of the things I have been thinking about more and more as 2018 progresses is the importance of making an effort to understand the perspective of others. Not just in general, but specifically where human-technology interactions are concerned. I wrote a guest blog post about related considerations here, but I have also engaged with *gulp* the philosophy department at our university. In fact, we co-organized a workshop on intimate technology at the Philosophy of Human Technology Relations (PHTR) conference.

Now you might imagine the philosophy department to be like  a 19th century gentleman’s club with deep leather armchairs, low visibility due to pipe smoke, and where the primary activity is frowning and chin-stroking. Well, I can report that this is not the case (at least not at our university). The philosophers I have met thus far deal with many of the same questions about the relation between humans and technology as I have been dealing with. Talking to the people at the philosophy department and becoming more interested in philosophy in general has been an eye-opening experience. In particular, I have been having regular conversations with Nicola Liberati, a postdoc at the University of Twente, on the topic of intimate technology. Gradually, others, including Birna van Riemsdijk of the TU Delft and Merijn Bruijnes (HMI), have joined in the conversation in what we have dubbed ‘intimate club’. In general, our interest is in how technology, including social touch technology, virtual agents, wearables, and social robots, can support intimate relations between people or can be a partner in an intimate relationship with a person.

These are not easy or entirely uncontroversial topics. To open up the discussion to as wide a variety of different viewpoints as possible, we decided to organize a workshop at the PHTR conference. The aim of the workshop was to bring together philosophers, artists, engineers, and scientists to offer up their views on intimate technology as it relates to intimacy with the self, intimacy with others through technology, and intimacy with technology. At least, that was the idea. We had no clue if this would pan out. Are philosophers interested in what an engineer has to say about intimacy? Do artists care how scientists view relationships? Will we be sitting in an empty room with a carefully selected group of slightly annoyed philosophers, artists, engineers, and scientists? The answers: yes; yes; no, not in the least.

It turned out to be an incredibly inspiring afternoon with everything from a live meditation performance with visualized biofeedback, to insights into the creation of robots in all shapes and sizes, to the remark that we might think too easily about robots when we talk of intimate technology in first place. Now I will not detail every talk at the workshop here (a fully report should be up on the 4TU website at some point). Instead, I’ll refer you to Merijn’s excellent live Tweeting of the workshop below.