We have been following Spot’s adventures for many years now; not Spot the children’s book character created by Eric Hill, but the Boston Dynamics’s mobile quadruped robot, currently available at $74,500. If we consider book titles such as, ‘Spot’s First Walk’, things take on a distinctly eerie feel. Robotic Spot also had a number of firsts and definitely learned from failure. However, our level of comfort with either Spot, the fictional character or the mobile robot, might be significantly different. In this article we will explore the human-robot dynamic, the nature of thinking and how ethical dilemmas can spark critical and creative thinking in students to explore solutions to possible futures.
Ethical dilemmas offer emotive opportunities to explore different perspectives in ways that can challenge us. Much like live wires, they have the potential to conduct and energize, in this case critical and creative thinking. One ethical dilemma is how human and robot interactions will shape our view of being human versus whether human and robot interactions will have no impact on our view of being human.
This new frontier of discovery frightens many people and creates a sense of risk. The emerging technologies are where the lines are blurred between humans and robotics in medicine, science and biomechanics, and the future directions of robotics can be both exciting and scary. When any big change happens to a civilization, it is often met with fear of the unknown. How do we manage that fear when the very essence of being human will be challenged?
These risks are serious but require considered approaches rather than fear mongering. For example, what are the ethical issues? A way to explore them is to think firstly what it means to be human, and what it means to be a robot. New relationships between humans and machines impact behavior. Let’s look at some history of human/robot relationships and how we responded to the machines.
In 1970, Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, first used the term “uncanny valley” to describe a phenomenon that affects humans when they see a robot or virtual character whose image closely resembles a human. Mori created a graph that mapped human empathy against the anthropomorphism of robots. As the robot images become more realistic on the graph we have empathy for the robots and the line shoots up. However as realism approaches the exact human form, our emotional connection, our empathy for them, drops dramatically. It is at this point when the graph falls that we enter the “uncanny valley”. This can bring about mental uneasiness. Research is very important for greater understanding of this phenomenon, as our societies move closer towards using robots as companions or helpers at home or in the workplace. Cartoonists and graphic artists who create for film and illustration know it is a fine line to tread when designing virtual characters and robots and they must understand at what point humans find these likenesses “creepy” (Harbord & Khan, 2020).
Problem-Solving using Bloom’s Taxonomy
By aligning robot performance to Bloom’s Taxonomy to gauge levels of robot consciousness, we can examine the importance of understanding what human roles and responsibilities might be in a future robot-human society.
Levels of thinking: In groups, students can research the kinds of work robots are currently doing and discuss how it aligns with Bloom’s Taxonomy. An activity specifically for your English Language Arts students that focuses on use and understanding of vocabulary could be to see how different levels of the taxonomy might align to current robotic thinking and action or if they can predict future directions.
Students can consider the implications of this for the human-robot dynamic and what makes a human a human and a robot a robot.
What level of thinking are you comfortable for robots to have?
Would you trust a robot to develop and use innovative and deep thinking?
Students will need to forget what they know and play with ideas of what could be; perhaps they need to be a bit of a thinking risk-taker.
Generating Questions using the Inquiry Creator Tool©
The Inquiry Creator Tool© is a new way for students to create their own questions. It is a versatile tool and can be used in any context by changing the key terms.
Using words from the boxes plus any of the key terms, how many questions or sentences can your students write to help them think about this topic?
Can + robots + imagine + ?
Can robots learn feelings? Does The Uncanny Valley change perceptions? Are robots biased?
Key terms for this unit:
Systems, trust, robot, sentient beings, robotics, The Uncanny Valley, intelligence, evolve, logical, augmented and anthropomorphize.
Live Wire Student Challenges
Here are a selection of class challenges inspired by the ethical dilemma to inspire your students and build on their critical thinking development.
Imagine: In a future scenario, how could you prove you were a human and not a robot?
Reflect: How much information (emotional, physical, social) did you give away today to a machine? How much of your data was mined today?
Debate: “What does it take for a human to trust another human? What does it take for a human to trust a machine?”
Students can choose a different place and time (e.g. Jupiter, 2097) in which they are presenting, and use some props and costumes.
Examine: Current research indicates that artificial intelligence can exhibit bias and stereotypical behaviour from its exposure to human cultural and social mores and language. What do you think about this?
Explore: The ethical considerations of inequality, difference and inclusion. What are the possibilities of ethically appropriate behavior towards robots?