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The Global Search for Education: What Does My Robot Think?

“Each of those objects is a portrait of who we were as a society, and a promise of who we wanted to be. So who are you now, and who do you want to become, now that you’ve had a look into the mirror of Robots?” — Ling Lee

What will robots mean to our future, and more specifically, what will their impact mean for learning and the role of education? Industrial-scale automation is coming soon. But what about other jobs that might change in the future? Will robots be teachers? Will robots take care of our grandparents? Will they entertain us at rock concerts? Will they be our best friends? Will they take all white-collar jobs from humans or will they simply remove the parts of our jobs we don’t enjoy anyway, enabling us to innovate and create new jobs?

Technology’s rapid evolution has allowed the talk of sci-fi imagination previously limited to movies to be translated into more of a real-life setting in recent years. In a new exhibit in London’s Science Museum, “Robots - The 500-Year Question to Make Machines Human,” depicts the 500-year history of humanoid robots as a way to understand what was expected of robots in five different periods and settings. Each of the robots in a collection of over 100 reflects various societies that the human race has lived through and emphasizes what defines us as human as time changes. 

The Global Search for Education is pleased to welcome Ling Lee, Co-Curator of Robots and the Contemporary Science Manager for Exhibitions at the Science Museum in London, to discuss the impact of robots on our past and future.

Ling, what can humans learn now that a robot cannot? 

The iCub you can see on display in the Robots exhibition is the world’s most advanced robot that learns the same way we do – through exploring and interrogating the world around it. Many research teams around the world are experimenting with iCubs to teach it simple tasks and concepts, like how to balance and pick up different objects, and recognize shapes, colors, words, and concepts like ‘no’. But each iCub does each of these separately – no iCub, for example, can balance on one foot while holding a conversation about its favorite color. 

A decade from now, do you believe a robot will be able to learn many of these complex things as well? 

Perhaps, perhaps not. If you feel impatient about that, it’s probably because we’ve dreamt of creating intelligent robots for far longer – hundreds and hundreds of years – than we have had the technological means to build them. The field of cognitive robotics, that is, the quest to give robots human-like intelligence and reasoning power, was pioneered in the 1990’s with the development of Cog, in Rodney Brooks’ lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). You can see one of Cog’s heads in Robots. So it’s still, relatively speaking, early days but that doesn’t mean cognitive robotics won’t progress much faster than it has in the past.

Do you believe, based on what we know now about humanoid robots, that they may take all our jobs away in the future? Will robots be able to manage other robots? 

We have always developed ingenious technologies to automate our workloads, from steam engines to search engines. Every industrial revolution, including the rapid development of technologies linking the physical, biological and digital worlds we are witnessing today, has been attended by the uneasy feeling that technology is developing faster than we can keep up with, and that we may be left behind. 

Yes, some jobs will be given to humanoid robots. Many, many more jobs will be given to non-humanoid robots because you don’t need a humanoid form to do those jobs efficiently. For example think of self-checkout counters and ATMs. Progress will march relentlessly on, so maybe a better question might be – what sort of education will you need to be employable in the future? 

On a more optimistic note, I think a more interesting question to ask is what jobs won’t, or can’t, humanoid robots take away, and what new jobs will emerge that we could never have dreamt of – human-robot relationship manger? Humanoid robot accessory designer? If robots were productive enough that we no longer need to work and were instead paid a universal basic income, what job would you want? I’d probably choose to do the same thing – curate exhibitions – which I would enjoy infinitely more without the stress of how I pay my mortgage.

Would you let a robot look after your grandparents? 

I would certainly let robots assist them. For example, I might buy them a robotic vacuum cleaner so they can put their feet up to enjoy a cup of tea while it goes about its business. Any technology that affords them additional years of independence is a good thing in my book. But I wouldn’t let robotic technologies replace social contact with them. Delegating the care of a loved one to a robot or nursing home is pretty much the same decision and raises the same considerations – why have you chosen to do so? Can you trust the party you’re delegating the responsibility to? Is it in the best interests of the parties involved? 

Finally, Ling, you’re in a classroom talking about this fabulous exhibit at the Science Museum and a student wonders what will make him/her unique compared with a robot in 2030. What might your answer be?

I would turn the question back on them. Imagine walking through this exhibition and seeing over a hundred humanoid robots that represent, in different periods over the last 500 years, what we thought of the world, what we valued, how technology would change our lives, how we dreamt the future would look. Each of those objects is a portrait of who we were as a society, and a promise of who we wanted to be. So who are you now, and who do you want to become, now that you’ve had a look into the mirror of Robots? 

(Photos are courtesy of the Science Museum London)

C. M. Rubin and Ling Lee

Join me and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Michael Block (U.S.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Professor Clay Christensen (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. MadhavChavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Andy Hargreaves (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Jean Hendrickson (U.S.), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Honourable Jeff Johnson (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Dr. EijaKauppinen (Finland), State Secretary TapioKosunen (Finland), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Lord Ken Macdonald (UK), Professor Geoff Masters (Australia), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Shiv Nadar (India), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Dr. Pak Tee Ng (Singapore), Dr. Denise Pope (US), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Dr. Diane Ravitch (U.S.), Richard Wilson Riley (U.S.), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Professor Manabu Sato (Japan), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. Anthony Seldon (UK), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (LyceeFrancais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Sir David Watson (UK), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Dr. Mark Wormald (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.

The Global Search for Education Community Page

C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.

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