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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 18 | November 15, 2001

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 toys.

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 us."

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.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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