In portrait: Jesse de Pagter

26. Apr. 2024

Trust in robots?

Jesse de Pagter has been a researcher in the Research Policy and Development department at ZSI since March 2023. He specialises in the study of technologies in their social and political context. He has a background in history, philosophy and science and technology studies and did a PhD at the TU Wien in the Trust in Robots Doctoral Program.

Jesse, you've been at ZSI since 2023. What was your path until then and how did you come to ZSI?

In 2018, at the end of my masters I was already at ZSI for a 2-month internship. Straight after that I went to the Technical University of Vienna to pursue a PhD. Going there, my goal was to engage more directly with technological research in order to understand more about the practices of embedding technologies in their societal context. In direct relation to that, the PhD provided me with the chance to apply my background in history, philosophy of technology, and science and technology studies in a very interdisciplinary setting.

Soon after the end of the PhD I encountered the ZSI job offer and applied. I see ZSI as a good fit because for me it provides the possibility to expand on this direct engagement with technoscientific developments and broaden my knowledge by working on projects in a range of different domains. Apart from that, I want to simply learn how to efficiently acquire and execute project-based work. ZSI has the type of horizontal organisational structure that helps to achieve that aim.

What did you focus on in your dissertation?

In its most general sense, my PhD is about trust in robots. Trust in this context can be interpreted in many ways, especially when it comes to robots in the form of embodied humanoids. You can for instance discuss (and measure) people’s experience of trust when they are encountering a humanoid robot. There are also more abstract notions of trust, like the (mis)trust of the wider public in new forms of robotization, or the effect that the wider trend of automation and robotization has on social trust. I am mostly focused on the latter, where I see it as my challenge to figure out how we can sensibly define and integrate these more abstract notions of trust in the early stages of robotics development.

What aspect of your research did you find particularly interesting?

Especially from my background as a philosopher of technology, I see robotics as a very interesting technology because of our culture’s long-lasting obsession with automation. For me, the way we are simultaneously afraid of and fascinated by robots represents many broader cultural and societal issues inherent to the peculiar relation between modern society and technological development. Discussing trust in robots is one way of conceptualising this. I generally see the combination of robotics and AI as one of the most interesting examples of technologies with a high level of tension between technological development and societal impact. What makes this issue particularly fascinating to me is that many of these deliberations are happening in a context that makes it difficult to distinguish between the real and the speculative: we are talking about technological artefacts that are one hand in development (real) but on the other hand they are not yet fully there and we’re not even that sure if they will ever be (speculative). 

Given that you are now at an applied research institute, was it challenging to adapt to the emphasis on impact and application orientation?

Interesting question. For me personally the switch feels not so big. First of all, from the perspective of philosophy as a discipline, philosophy of technology is often (sometimes pejoratively) considered to be a very applied form of philosophy. Furthermore, going to a technical university in my PhD was already a big step in the same direction, since one is expected to have ideas and methods that can be applied in technological research. 

What I do see however is the difference between the need to specialise. In academia you are usually expected to present yourself as highly specialised in a specific domain. ZSI employees are a bit more expected to be able to understand a wide range of topics. At the moment, I am enjoying the fact that ZSI allows me to learn a lot about many different things.

What are your areas of interest for future research?

Following up on what I just said, I feel like it is rather difficult to keep a broader perspective in a system that focuses on expertise and specialisation. Without necessarily arguing too much against that system, in my modest understanding, our society needs a bit more people who have insider knowledge in a broad array of fields. You could call it “specialist generalists” if you will. Just to give an example, when I teach ethics to engineers at the TU Wien, it is good to be quite aware of what trends in chemical engineering are, but also in robotics, in computer science, in architecture and so on and so on. Moreover, it is also absolutely essential to be very aware of how these fields define their ambitions for developing in a direction that is more sustainable, ethical, equitable and so on. Therefore, for me it is important to be learning about these things.

Therefore, when it comes to research, I currently enjoy being engaged in projects that give me the feeling I am gaining more insights in different directions, while also continuously crafting my own story of the connection between the different directions. In the end I have a naive obsession and speculative hope that if we manage to organise ourselves around changing our technologies for the better, we might also come to live in a world that is universally more equal and prosperous. Unfortunately, I also see many convincing arguments to consider this a futile hope. Nevertheless, I believe in it, because if there is one thing that I consider obligatory, it is not to become a nihilist.