Students, robots pair up for timely lessons in ethics
Class looks beyond Battlebots to tackle technology issues
by Michelle Cook staff writer
Children have been using Lego building blocks to snap together
skyscrapers and cars since 1932, but a UBC Philosophy professor
has found a novel use for one of the world's most imaginative play
Prof. Peter Danielson, who holds the Mary and Maurice Young Professorship
in the Faculty of Graduate Studies' Centre for Applied Ethics, has
incorporated the classic plastic blocks into the curriculum for
his graduate seminar, Ethics for Robots.
But the Lego pieces Danielson uses don't come from starter sets.
In his class, multidisciplinary teams of seminar students construct
sophisticated Lego Mindstorm robots to compete in mini ethics games.
Unlike in the popular TV show Battlebots, these competitions
don't involve robots dueling each other to the death. The challenges
include getting the robots to work together to rescue a victim,
find a landmine, or escape a fire in a crowded theatre.
The robots are the focus for solving different ethical problems
presented to students each week.
"New technology is like manna from heaven," explains Danielson
while activating a pair of wheeled robots on the desk in front of
him. "When someone drops manna on you, you've got to figure out
what you want to do with it.
"Our society's rapid adoption of advanced technologies has created
new ethical problems, even as it solves others," he says. "We have
to ask what our rules are going to be."
Danielson says that getting the robots to compete addresses two
levels of applied ethics challenges.
On one level, building, or modeling, a robot to perform specific
tasks demonstrates that the ability to construct a purely competitive
"battlebot" may allow players to destroy other robots to "win" a
game, but it isn't likely to solve any ethical problems.
Danielson's aim is to engage students in gentler games to show
them that agents like robots can be designed to compete with moral
features such as constraint and concern for others.
"Technology is just like nature," Danielson says. "When it comes
out of the box, it doesn't care about us. It's amoral and risky,
and in the seminar, students take that technology and produce something
that is moral, sociable and able to get along with others and with
On a second level, the seminar allows students to experience the
problems of negotiating and maintaining social contracts for building
robots together and having competitions with them.
Danielson hopes the lessons learned from the weekly robot games
will teach students how to create ethically better technology, as
well as use new technology to improve their ethics.