June 06, 2014

Will robots make their own ethical decisions?

Maintaining a creative edge is key to the success of the Tiger Woods Learning Center (TWLC). Allowing our teachers to learn from one another and reflect on their practice is critical as we continue to develop our programs and grow our reach around the country. There is something special about being an instructor with the TWLC. A look inside a training session shows why.

As I sat at the back of the room observing my first TWLC staff training course, it was neat to see how the teachers had become the students, as the participants in today’s lesson were instructors from the Tiger Woods Foundation’s seven Learning Center locations. 

Pencils were put down, heads turned to the front of the room. The instructors looked toward the Smartboard as the first lesson of the day began at the TWLC in Washington. First on the agenda: robotics. As a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) course, robotics is designed to invoke interest in science and math for high school juniors and seniors. As a journalism school graduate, I’ve never taken a robotics class before, but I was certainly interested in seeing what it was all about. 

The robotics lesson began with a clip from the BBC about drones and their capabilities. But as I soon found out, the lesson wasn’t about the robot’s abilities. 

“Who can define ethics?” asked Mark McGlone, a DC-based instructor for the TWLC. 

“Determining right versus wrong,” one of the instructors shouts out. 

Wow! That wasn’t where I was expecting the conversation to go.

Once we established the definition of ethics, the lesson shifted to a more interactive session. Posters were hung around the classroom that read, “Who should be held responsible if a robot commits an immoral act?” and “Do you think it will be possible eventually for robots to make their own ethical decisions?”

Mark asked for any questions, and then instructed the class to write its responses to the questions posed on the posters. 

After answering the questions, Mark facilitated polite debate among the instructors. I imagine a group of high school juniors and seniors having these same conversations. 

In the next activity, Mark asked the instructors to stand on the far side of the room if they agreed with a statement or go near the door if they disagreed. 

First up: “Robots should not be designed solely or primarily to kill or harm humans.” Most of the group goes to the far side of the room in agreement. Subjects including warfare, safety and responsibility occupied the room in discussion. 

Next on the list: “Robots should be designed in ways that assure their safety and security.” Plenty of mixed reviews are shouted from both sides of the classroom before Mark reminds the instructors to raise their hands before speaking.

A hush comes over the room as Mark wraps up his robotics ethics lesson, one that I was not expecting heading into the class. Mark discusses the application of the class in regard to what the students are learning in school. While they may not be taught ethics in their everyday classrooms, the students have the opportunity to listen and learn after school with Mark’s lesson. He explains that the robotics ethics course is presented during a break in teaching the intricacies of robotics. The learning center teachers analyze Mark’s class and raise questions about how he develops the curriculum.

The staff learning session is simple but effective. Learn from one another’s lessons and determine how to apply new techniques to an already innovative method of teaching.

Until my next observation … keep education top of mind and never be afraid to learn something new!