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.