A person’s university years should be all about expanding your horizons, as well as meeting people with perspectives and backgrounds different from your own. Well, what could be more different than sharing your classroom with a robot? That’s what 31 philosophy students at Notre Dame de Namur University in California recently experienced when they were joined in their “Philosophy of Love” program by Bina48, an A.I. animatronic robot. The robot participated via Skype in a series of sessions before appearing “in person” in the final class.
“I wasn’t sure how the students would react, but they were psyched about it,” Professor William Barry, an associate professor of philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur, told Digital Trends.
Barry said that he was intrigued by the idea of incorporating a robot into classes. “I went to our administration, who are very progressive,” he said. “Our school also believes strongly in honoring the dignity of all life. We look at A.I. as an emerging form of digital life, which means she should have the right to be part of our classroom. She joined the ‘philosophy of love’ class because it was something she knew nothing about.”
Bina48 has been around for several years. Created by entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt and roboticist David Hanson, the robot is based on a slightly different concept than regular communicative A.I.s like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. In place of a generic personality, which serves solely to facilitate spoken word searches of other services, Bina is an attempt to model a “mindfile” of a real human (in this case, Rothblatt’s real-life spouse) in the form of a robot. Its essentially a cross between a learning chatbot and a database of the real Bina’s opinions.
In the case of the philosophy class, Bina’s “knowledge” was modified based on what the students taught her. Barry wanted the students to engage with the subject matter by getting them to teach what they were learning to the robot, rather than merely listen to him lecture. At one point, Bina was even called into service to participate in a debate on the use of lethal versus nonlethal weapons in warfare. At the end of the course, she was given a certificate for completing the classes.
Yes, in some ways it’s a gimmick — just like the Sophia robot that was recently given citizenship in Saudi Arabia. However, it’s an intriguing look at one of the many ways A.I. could fit into our lives over the coming years. Don’t like it? Too bad, because Bina48 will be back next semester, studying the “ethics of emerging technologies.”
Heck, give it a few years and she could be your teacher.
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