Tuesday, April 21, 2009

robot teachers

From: Jo

Normally I'm all for technological advancement, but I just read an article about a robotic teacher that has made her primary-school classroom debut in Japan and it has me seriously questioning what the heck researchers are thinking. Though I have no children of my own, I've raised six kids and can promise researchers that there's no way a computer is going to be able to respond to children's human needs, let alone answer questions that only a contemplative six-year-old can dream up. The article gives props to the robot's 'lifelike facial movements', and goes on to say that such robots are also being designed to be companions to people with Alzheimer's. I've spent most of my life working with the disabled and feel that abandoning them to robotic companions who have human facial movements but no human warmth is a bad idea. As an sf writer, what do you think?

You don't provide a link for the article you mention, so it's difficult to respond to this specifically and with particulars.

Broadly speaking, then: as a human being, I think the notion of robotic 'companions', defining companion as 'a person employed to accompany, assist, or live with another in the capacity of a helpful friend', is so wrong-headed it's difficult to believe they're serious. Helpful friends, whether of the human or faithful animal kind work as friends by sharing emotion. You complain about your boss and the friend says, "That bastard! Have another drink." You're feeling tense, you throw a frisbee for your dog and his joy in eeling up into the air to catch that bit of yellow plastic lightens your gloom.

As an sf writer, I think a robot 'companion' for people with Alzheimer's might work, but only if we understand companion to be a euphemism for minder. And I think it would be inhumane. But it beats literally tying the person with Altzheimer's to the bed. Which happens.

As for teachers, the notion is mind-bogglingly stupid. People learn from people. Learning is a multi-faceted thing, multi-layered. It involves emotion, socialisation, behaviour patterning, memory (which in turns is influenced by all of the above) and so on. A clever piece of plastic, even if brilliantly designed, is just plastic. It is teaching only set things. It can't think/act/feel out of the box--which, as anyone who knows children understands, is what kids do; it's what they require in a teacher.

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