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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2 thoughts on “Robots – in our future whether we like it or not!

  1. I know I am coming to this thread a little late but I have been looking at the role of ‘Robots’ across cultures. Not the Japanese tin toys varieties or the ‘Lost in Space’ things but the products many use everyday. My wife is French and all Kitchenalia design that involves elements of automation have been called Robots (pronounced ‘Robo’…..) for many years. It’s in the language and the culture.

    So when we talk about benefits and impact on users, UCD and so on it has existed for many decades but not from a manufacturing (DT) standpoint as such. It is not taught in (French) schools interestingly.

    Like Germany, students in France only study aspects of Design & Technology post school via university or specialist technical institutions (such as an Diplome Universitaire de Tecnologie – DUT – for example).

    My last thought; programming is only part of the picture. Making the thing and engineering it to work is vital and for me it’s this aspect of DT that is rapidly being corroded away and it’s a concern. Lots of designing and coding going on but if students (and teachers) don’t have the ability to understand materials, processes and techniques regarding manufacture who eventually makes the robots and machines? If not humans then Ai and self replicating machines?

    An interesting discussion to have.

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  2. Some very pertinent questions raised here David – thank you. For me the interesting points for discussion with D&T teachers and subsequently pupils are:
    – what are the benefits/impact/opportunities for local communities and their quality of life?
    – who would decide these benefits etc? will it be the corporations, governments etc? D&T is a way through engaging young people in this debate they will become the decision makers at local level – great opportunity!
    – Making a robot, learning how to programme etc is ‘fun’ but the wider contribution D&T can make to a pupil’s learning about robotics is more interesting. Discussing: where could this lead? what would the impact be? who decides? (takes me back to some of those Young Foresight questions)

    And for once you have captured my interest so much that I might even look up Illah Nourbakhsh’s book!

    Like

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