This paper argues that attendance to the relationships between science fact and science fiction can be used to facilitate productive exchange between science and humanities discourses.  The paper focuses on factual and fictional examples of human-robot relations, and uses these to engage critically with Levinas’ theories relating to the face, with the aim of opening up new ways to think about humans and robots, and their interactions.

The paper first identifies complex borderlands between discourses of the sciences and those of the humanities, rather than distinct boundary lines.  It then places science fiction at the centre of these borderlands, by combining ideas about an increasingly science fictional world with the work of theorists, such as Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles, who argue that narratives of science fact can themselves be seen as fictions of science.

The paper proceeds to consider how ideas of humanness and otherness, and interactions between the two, are complicated by the creations both of artificial intelligence and robotics laboratories, as well as science fiction authors.  Under particular consideration here are humanoid robots such as Kismet and Cog, designed and built at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), along with robots in science fiction such as Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, where society includes intelligent machines with a variety of both human and non-human forms.

The resonances between these examples lead this paper to question whether “the ultimate quest, the Grail of many roboticists today” should be “to build a humanoid robot”.   The paper therefore explores the implications of creating embodied artificial intelligences in both human and non-human form, with a focus on the importance of faces and bodies in enabling social and ethical interactions.  To this end, the paper develops a consideration of Levinas’ thought regarding coming face-to-face with the Other, extending this in light of real-life human interactions with Kismet and Cog, and human-robot relations portrayed in Banks’ fictional Culture society.  Of particular relevance is the understanding that Levinas’ concept of the face does not refer to the corporeal face of a person, but is rather an attribute of being that constitutes the difference between human encounters with others as opposed to with things.

In conclusion, the paper uses this consideration of face in Levinas’ thought to argue that embodied artificial intelligences, both humanoid and non-humanoid, could take the place of the Other in a Levinasian formulation of the face-to-face encounter.