Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Love and machines

2016/01/17

I recently listened to the Tapestry episode about the human tendency to get attached to robots. It was very interesting.

The episode covers various things – including repeated references to hitchBOT. No, not a robotic reincarnation of the Hitch. It was a hitch-hiking Canadian robot that was destroyed (some say “murdered”) by someone in August 2015.

One point made in the episode is that humans’ emotional reactions to robots makes them valid objects of ethical consideration. I’ll mention a couple of things that came up. Let me know what you think.

First, consider Paro, a robot seal designed for therapeutic use with elderly people. It is used in the way that pet animals are sometimes used. It is not alive in the same sense, but it also avoids problems of hygiene and allergies that may make live animals inappropriate for use in some situations.

paro

Now, is it problematic to use robots in a way that is designed to get people to form emotional attachments to them? Is there something wrong with using them as a replacement for live animals? On that note, is there something wrong with using non-human animals as a replacement for human companions?

I don’t think so. These all seem okay to me. But I can see how these applications may make some people uncomfortable. And of course, there is the potential to abuse that emotional connection. You could program the robots to gather personal information or to encourage excessive attachment. A really unscrupulous company might even use the robots to manipulate elderly customers to pay more money to keep the robot alive and happy, or to upgrade it, etc.

So, while the basic idea is fine, I think this is something we should keep an eye on (as with any technology, new or old).

Now, what about Spot, a robot that walks like a dog? Here is a video of Spot being put through its paces:

At a couple of points, people test the robot’s stability by pushing it with their feet. Kicking it. It is remarkably good at staying upright, but its dog-like scrabbling with its feet reminds us of a live dog that is being kicked. Check out the comments on the to see how some people react emotionally to seeing this.

Without going down the (fascinating but fraught) rabbit hole of “can machines feel pain/pleasure”, there are still some interesting moral questions here.

For example, if someone kicks a robot (or vandalizes one, as happened to hitchBOT) with malicious intent, is this just abuse of property, or is it a more serious problem? One researcher interviewed on the Tapestry episode pointed out that willingness to destroy a robot is correlated with low empathy scores overall.

I don’t think someone should be jailed for attacking a robot in the same way they should be jailed for attacking a person. But willingness to attack a human-like robot is evidence of the same antisocial character traits that make someone willing to attack an actual human. Surely we shouldn’t just ignore the risk such people pose.

What do you think? Is this still just the fevered dreams of science fiction fans? Or do we need to consider these issues now, before the corporations and other unaccountable entities decide for us how these things will work in our lives and our laws?

Education panel

2015/11/09

(This is part of a series of posts about the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

After lunch on the second day of the conference, we had a panel of three speakers to discuss the issue of religious intrusions into education here in Alberta. This was very interesting – in part because it connected directly to me in two ways: as someone who has been through the public school system, and as someone with kids in it now.

Scott Rowed

First, we heard from Scott Rowed on Creationism in science education. Did you know that we have not one but two creation museums here in Alberta? One down in Big Valley*, and the other in Brooks**. (This latter doesn’t even call itself a museum – it is openly a ministry.)

I know a reader from certain parts of the US, or from many other places in the world, might roll their eyes that I’m complaining about this. But this is Canada. This is 2015. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed in my fellow Albertans, that they are credulous enough to keep places like this in business. And not only that, but there are teachers in this province (not many, so far as I know) who think it’s okay to treat this dogmatic rubbish as science.

Here are some articles about the intrusion of creationism into Alberta education:

My comfort is that our new government in Alberta seems happy to take things in hand and straighten out wayward educators who think public schooling is their playground for the sectarian interference in giving children a free and safe environment to learn and to thrive in the modern world.

Kathy Dawson

After that, we heard from Kathy Dawson, a tireless campaigner for comprehensive sex education. We learned that various loopholes in the educational system here in Alberta allow school administrators to bring in external groups to teach certain topics. So, without notice to their parents, some students are being subjected to propaganda-laden presentations from anti-choice abstinence-only groups rather than being given science-based, balanced, and complete instruction about crucial topics in sexual health. Kathy’s daughter was one victim of these loopholes, and she’s been working ever since to get this garbage kept out of public schools. Here are CBC and Edmonton Journal reports on their story and its immediate aftermath.

Yes, this has my steam up. Next year my daughter will be in Grade Four, the first year where sex education is part of the curriculum here in Alberta. Deena and I may be able to help counteract any misinformation she is given. (I’m hopeful – our school administrators seem to have their heads screwed on right.) But we can’t reach every kid, and when she becomes sexually active, there is a good chance any partner she has will be playing from a broken rulebook when it comes to safe and enjoyable sexual behaviours.

Kathy pointed us to Alberta AIM – “Accessing Information, not Myths”. According to their website,

Accessing Information Not Myths is a group of community stakeholders and concerned citizens addressing gaps in the Alberta Education curriculum and curriculum revisions.

Our current campaign focuses on the lack of clear parameters for sexual education in the CALM curriculum.  After successfully having groups that teach medically inaccurate, anti-gay, faith-and fear-based sex education banned from presenting in Edmonton public schools, we are now expanding this campaign across the province.

Follow current developments on Twitter: @AlbertaAIM.

Luke Fevin

Third, we heard from Luke Fevin, the main public voice of A PUPIL – “Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning”, an organization that works to remove exclusionary and divisive practices from Alberta schools, including school prayer (yes, it still happens in some places!) and the dual school system.

On school prayer, it’s hard to see why it’s even a question. For a school to actively promote prayer for one religious belief over others is blatantly, inescapably divisive, setting up some children as “normal” and others as “different”. Especially in places that are majority Christian, this is an intolerable imposition on the children whose own beliefs or family traditions are not Christian (whether they are atheist or of another religion). Even different Christian sects who pray in a different way are excluded. And of course, despite what the defenders of school prayer like to cry, nobody is trying to prevent kids from praying on their own. We just want schools to stop officially promoting prayer.

We currently have public money going not only to a public, inclusive school system, but also to a parallel Catholic school system. Luke talked about the inefficiency of this redundant setup – to the tune of $200 million in extra costs (ie, money we would save by combining the systems). The recent difficulty establishing a trans-friendly environment in a Catholic school highlights the sort of problem that can arise when one group thinks they are special and don’t need to follow the basic rules of decency that the rest of us take for granted.

Of course, it is part of the Alberta Act (our provincial “constitution”) that we have these two systems, but the privileging of one religion (not a majority, not even when the province was founded in 1905) over all others is a Bad Idea, and that is just the sort of thing that constitutional amendments – in this case, updating the Alberta Act – are really good at fixing.

It’s been done before – Québec (a culturally very Catholic province) abolished their separate system in 2000.

I want to be clear: I have nothing against Catholics. At the risk of sounding trite, my best friend is Catholic, and her kids attend a Catholic school. I just think that, in an age when governments watch budgets, there ought to be a pretty solid case for spending $200 million extra dollars on education, and I haven’t heard that case here. And, in a province that has a great variety of religious, political, and cultural backgrounds among its people, the idea of picking one particular identity and saying, “Those people get their own school system; everyone else goes in the other system” is beyond ludicrous.

You can find A PUPIL on Facebook here. (I actually wrote about them back in June, when I first found them.)

——

After the speakers had each given their presentation, there was a general discussion around the issues at hand. Many of the attendees are either alumni of Alberta schools (like me) or have kids in Alberta schools (like me). This (along with the Dying with Dignity talk) was perhaps the most close-to-home of all the events at the conference – directly relevant, something we could sink our teeth into, and even start acting on right now.

I have not yet determined how I want to approach these topics at my kids’ school. Like I said, they seem pretty sensible about things. (No school prayer, thank goodness.) I don’t want to start out antagonistic. But I also don’t want these to be invisible issues. If I run into any issues, I’m sure you’ll hear about it here on the blog. If I don’t, it probably means everything is fine.

Footnotes:

* No, I’m not linking to them directly. I’m giving the Wikipedia link.

** Yes, this one is not popular enough to have a Wikipedia link (happily), so I’m (reluctantly) linking to them directly. Please don’t feel obliged to follow the link.