Robotics, STEM, and Ethics

Citizens should know how their government is spending their money. This book sheds light on a scary reality.

March 24, 2012

I just finished Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P.W. Singer. The book mostly focused on the evolution of robotic technology, particularly as it is used in warfare. But we can’t talk about technology without talking about STEM education. Take a look at this excerpt:

One of the major challenges to America’s success in a world of high technology is that the same education system that once took its military and economy to the top is now falling behind. Only 54 percent of America’s high school students perform at even a basic level in math and science. And these are by American standards. When matched against international students, American high school students come in twenty-second in the world in basic math and science and twenty-fourth when they had to apply their skills to real-world problems. … It isn’t that American kids are dumb. Rather, our education system is making them dumber. … Indeed, while U.S. fourth graders come in at the top eightieth percentile in the world in science, by the time they reach the twelfth grade they have fallen to the bottom fifth percentile. To paraphrase the failed Bush education reform policy, which worsened the problem by emphasizing rote memorization, nearly every American child is being left behind. …This is starting to create a “futile cycle”…There are fewer and fewer American teachers and professors with science and mathematics skills to inspire, supervise, and mentor the net generation of American engineers and inventors. (p. 247-248)

In other words, we can expect the United States to fall behind, and be surpassed in technological developments by countries that do not lack in STEM students.

But we are facing yet another problem. Not only are we moving along slowly compared to countries like China, but the direction in which robotics is heading may be detrimental in the long run. Why?

1. The military is the primary funder of the robotics industry. Thus, robots are increasingly geared toward warfare. We now have autonomous systems (robots that can think for themselves) that are equipped with weapons. Warfare is becoming increasingly dehumanized and deadly.

2. Corporate culture impedes scientists’ and engineers’ full discretion as to the purpose and characteristics of their innovations since these hinge on the desires of funders.

Implications for education and society

The US has invested billions of dollars into the robotics industry. While this may be the most immediate way to create new technologies, a more effective though longer-term approach to innovation would be to invest in education and focus on retaining more students in the maths and sciences.

In addition to getting more kids interested and skilled in STEM, we need morals and ethics to keep pace with our burgeoning robotics industry. Because robotics is such a new and revolutionary field, a doctrine/ethics code governing features and usage of future technology does not yet exist. Students should be exposed to the controversies surrounding new technologies so that future generations of scientists grow up as critical and ethical thinkers.

One thought on “Robotics, STEM, and Ethics

  1. Not sure I get the point of objections 1 and 2 above.

    For one, yes of course war is dehumanizing. And it always was deadly–WWI still holds the record there. But do we want the fate of our civilization to depend on raising a large class of people who are *happy* to walk up to strangers and personally smash them in the face, just because a politician said to? Does that seem like a safe society to build? War without machine proxies boils down to gladiatorial combat, which is not a category of “human touch” that benefits society outside of war.

    Looking at history, a lot of civilized, sedentarized societies have been wiped out whenever the next band of nomadic warriors swooped out of the hills to attack them. If we have a three-way choice between raising and supporting a huge social class of brutal gladiator types, building a lot of machines, or just throwing in the towel against the next barbarian invaders, the machines do seem like the cheaper, safer, and more effective option. To go defend our civilization and still return as sane members of a modern society, it does help if we can build a cognitive cushion between ourselves and the killing.

    For two, the implication seems to be that a smart engineer is likely to have a better ethical sense than whoever funds the research. And that can certainly be true–citing for example Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg quietly sabotaging Hitler’s nuclear weapons research. But the whole idea of democracy says our bet goes with the elected officials having the best idea how to run things. Yes, this means those politicians the polls say none of us trust; and in the case above, it specifically means Hitler. As for the whole idea of free-market capitalism, it is that whoever brought the money has the best idea how it should be used.

    Between these three involved groups–the investor, the technologist, and the government–there is no clear, consistent pattern as to which one will be right, nor which one will prevail, in any given scenario. Our society is built on these conundrums, and it is not clear to me why objection number two seems to imply the technologist should always have the veto.

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