Robots – in our future whether we like it or not!

Where do you see the future of robots? With C3PO, the innocuous and benevolent protocol droid in Star Wars or with the Terminator the implacable assassin sent from the future to destroy us? And as a result, what would you have young people learn about robotics?

Are robots really the next big thing? Will they be a disruptive technology changing the status quo, altering the way people live and work, providing new products and services and giving profit for shrewd investors? Who will win and who will lose as robots invade areas of activity previously carried out by humans. Already robots are widely used in manufacturing. There is more than a little interest in robots for military purposes. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects http://www.darpa.mil/our_work/ ) has significant interest in robotics. Their recent robotics challenge focused on search, rescue and alleviate with regard to disasters (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-25398416 ) but it’s all to easy to see how this could become search and destroy. Robots may have a place in education supporting if not replacing teachers as evidenced by Garnet Valley School Board spending nearly $50,000 to purchase five humanoid robots that will assist teachers with the instruction of students with autism and other learning disabilities. (http://www.delcotimes.com/technology/20140130/garnet-valley-school-district-approves-spending-50000-on-classroom-robots?goback=%2Egde_3391879_member_5835097293157597184) James Dyson has decided to invest in robotics (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-26084765 ) with a special emphasis on robots for the home. What impact will these have on the employment of those who make their living as cleaners? Some of the biggest commercial enterprises are gaining expertise in robotics through expensive acquisitions. Google has bought up seven robot companies (http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/industrial-robots/google-acquisition-seven-robotics-companies ) plus Boston Dynamics a military robot-maker (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-25395989 ) and Amazon has purchased Kiva Systems which makes robots used in shipping centers (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304724404577291903244796214) Japan is investing heavily in developing robots that might care for the elderly (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24949081 ). Even making love is not immune from the influence of robots as shown by the writing of David Levy in Love + Sex with Robots – less salacious and more informative than you might think at first sight (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Love-Sex-Robots-Human-robot-Relationships/dp/0715637770/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392220919&sr=1-1&keywords=david+levy )

Recent science fiction films have provided view points at two extremes. The film Robot and Frank makes a poignant case for the human-robot relation (http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/robotfrank/ ) The RoboCop remake (http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/sony_pictures/robocop/ ) discusses the ethics of using robots to make decisions that have in the past been made by humans.

Illah Nourbakhsh in his brilliant book Robot Futures (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Robot-Futures-Illah-Reza-Nourbakhsh/dp/0262018624/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392219820&sr=1-1&keywords=Illah+Nourbakhsh ) develops a range of scenarios in which the impact of robot behaviour isn’t what was intended by their inventors.  Illah suggests that in robots we have invented a new species that operates as a living glue between our physical world and the digital universe we have created. Robots can operate in the real world and at the same time can be fully connected to the digital world. This is already reflected in the development of an internet for robots (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-25727110 ). Illah is impassioned in his plea for a robot future that is not dystopic:

“Robotics is becoming a potent force, but, like much of technology, it has no innate moral compass. It is destined to influence society, and I believe the early adopters are already apparent: corporations, militaries, governments, and a privileged band of technically savvy individuals. What is missing from this list is the interests of citizens and local communities, motivated neither by power nor by economic value, hoping to contribute to a sustainable quality of life. Our challenge and opportunity lies in becoming the vanguards of ever-better robot futures, and this means we must bend the lines of influence that robotics will forge. If we succeed, we make an alternative vision into soaring reality: robots as new, interactive media for making local change; communities empowered to measure, problem solve, demonstrate, and act to improve their conditions. In this possible robotic future, the robotics revolution can affirm the most nonrobotic quality of our world: our humanity.”   

And we teach children about robotics in our school curriculum in design & technology. The National curriculum isn’t prescriptive here. It provides opportunities through statements such as

Purpose of study

  • Through the evaluation of past and present design and technology, they develop a critical understanding of its impact on daily life and the wider world.

Design

  • Use research and exploration, such as the study of different cultures, to identify and understand user needs
  • Develop specifications to inform the design of innovative, functional, appealing products that respond to needs in a variety of situations

Evaluate

  • Investigate new and emerging technologies
  • Understand developments in design and technology, its impact on individuals, society and the environment, and the responsibilities of designers, engineers and technologists

Technical Knowledge

  • Apply computing and use electronics to embed intelligence in products that respond to inputs [for example, sensors], and control outputs [for example, actuators], using programmable components [for example, microcontrollers].

These can be starting points for two aspects of the design and technology curriculum. The first aspect is that which develops in young people a perspective on any technology and the way it might be deployed. Here I would want young people to consider what robots might be able to do and whether it is appropriate for them to do these things. The second aspect is the development of technological capability so that young people would learn how to design, make and programme robots to carry out specific tasks. Both are essential for any holistic appreciation of robotics. It is easy to be seduced by the ‘fun’ of designing and making a robot without considering the wider implications of robots in society. Considering robots in society becomes fantasy if not grounded to some extent in the realities of coding, communication, control systems and actuators.

So I return to the question at the beginning what would you have young people learn about robotics?

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Food in Academy Curricula

I have been asked to comment on the place of teaching food in Academies and this is my response….”

My understanding is that Academies are exempt from teaching the National Curriculum. The only yardstick by which you will be judged in the new accountability measures are GCSE performance which involves both the progress pupils make compared to their predicted performance across a suite of 8 subjects, the attainment in 8 subjects, the percentage of pupils achieving a C or better in English and math and the EBacc.

Progress 8 and Attainment 8 apply to

  • a double weighted English element (the English Language qualification will count for this element, but will only be double weighted if the pupil has also taken English Literature);
  • a double weighted maths element;
  •  three slots reserved for other EBacc subjects (sciences, computer science,  geography, history and languages).
  •  three slots that can be taken up by further qualifications from the range of EBacc subjects, or any other high value arts, academic, or vocational qualification. The department will produce a list of approved, high value vocational qualifications every year. English Literature will count in this group of subjects.

You can find the document at

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/249893/Consultation_response_Secondary_School_Accountability_Consultation_14-Oct-13_v3.pdf

I think d&t fits within the  any other high value arts, academic, or vocational qualification slot as an academic subject.

If an Academy does decide to follow the National curriculum then learning about food occurs in three places within the design & technology PoS

Within Make in the statements concerning Design, Make Evaluate

  • select from and use a wider, more complex range of materials, components and ingredients, taking into account their properties

The use of the term ‘ingredients’ implies that pupils will be designing and making with food

Within Technical knowledge

  • understand and use the properties of materials and the performance of structural elements to achieve functioning solutions

This statement can be applied to designing and making with food.

Within Cooking and Nutrition

  • pupils should be taught how to cook and apply the principles of nutrition and healthy eating specifically at KS3
  • understand and apply the principles of nutrition and health § cook a repertoire of predominantly savoury dishes so that they are able to feed
  • themselves and others a healthy and varied diet
  • become competent in a range of cooking techniques [for example, selecting and preparing ingredients; using utensils and electrical equipment; applying heat in different ways; using awareness of taste, texture and smell to decide how to season dishes and combine ingredients; adapting and using their own recipes]
  • understand the source, seasonality and characteristics of a broad range of ingredients.

To my mind this is mainly a life skill approach and the problem with this for d&t is that to do this properly requires time in excess of what is normally available in the food technology component of d&t. This inevitably leads to pupils experiencing a very limited food technology programme at KS3 and poor preparation for food technology at KS4. The solution to this problem could be to place the teaching and learning required for Cooking and Nutrition into PSHE.