Can a robot care?

Robots, Genes, Soul: exploratory and intervention study

The  workshops are designed to develop young people’s appreciation of what it means to be human through a cross-curricular unit that bridges Computer Science, RE and Science. The rationale for the approach is that  in most secondary schools teaching  takes place in specialist subject areas.  While this approach meets many objectives, it means that interdisciplinary questions are largely neglected, or are fragmented into individual subject compartments.

The objectives are for students to increase their understanding of cutting edge science and engineering, to develop and apply their analytic, problem-solving, design, and computational thinking skills as well as reveal to teenagers that some questions are more amenable to scientific methods than others.

 Workshop 1 (Computer Science) Can a robot hear?

sm-clapStudents are presented with a headline that asserts that a robot has been invented which can hear. They evaluate the robot described in the article to assess whether it can hear or only respond to sound.

ListeningRobot_FemaleV2-CMYK300dpiStudents then design the algorithm for a robot that appears to be creative – so that the robot can deliver a new tune on demand. Students then design the algorithm for a robot that appears to be creative – so that the robot can deliver a new tune on demand. Finally students compare the difficulties of addressing and assessing each of these challenges- a robot that can respond to sound / a robot that can hear; producing a robot that appears to be creative / that is creative. They put their ideas onto the attached graphical tool. robotics-grid-v4

The workshop helps students find the critical questions to ask when reporters use words associated with human experiences and capacities when talking about technology. It also introduces the idea that some questions are more amenable to science than others.

Workshop 2 (RE) Science is all you need or is it?

disc-rainbowThis part of the workshop begins with the assertion, I love my children but that’s just because of my genes. Children then explore the question, ‘why is my hair the way it is’  through the lenses of a ‘rainbow’ of disciplines to notice what is added to their answer as they bring in a richer set of questions, methods and norms of thought. Students construct their own journey through the disciplines working with the question ‘who am I?’. The aim is to introduce the idea that disciplines can be complementary and not only in competition.

Details Here

Workshop 3  (Computer Science) Can a robot fall in love?

RobotInLove-RoseANDDaisyStudents  critique a headline which announces the existence of robots that now fall in love. They examine different possibilities to explain why a robot might say it is in love.

We compare and contrast the way that a person develops values and beliefs with the functionality that engineers plan to build into robots.


Workshop 4 (RE) Ways of thinking about the Soul
Students consider five different perspectives on the soul – by looking at ways to address  the question of what is the essence of a person.


Workshop 5  (Computer Science and RE) Can a robot care?
Students consider whether a robot can ever really care for someone or whether it can only act on the basis of principles that people provide. They design guidelines for a group of fictitious engineers who are going to invent a robot that cares.

Students conclude by conducting and presenting their own research project, working with the following brief: Design a robot that cares –  considering what criteria will be satisfied, what limitations and rules will be built in or anyway arise.

Workshop 5 – RE  (40 mins, advanced) Ways of thinking about the Soul

“Anyone who wishes to speak of agency, whether human or divine, will have to adopt a metaphysical point of view within which to conduct the discourse. The conceptual edifice thus constructed must be consonant with its physical base, but it will no more be determined by it than the foundations of a house completely determine the character of the building.” (Polkinghorne, 2009, 147)

DSC_0963The idea of the Soul is frequently mentioned by religious and non-religious students when they try to explain why robots are not capable of experiencing and interacting with the world in the ways that people do. Children (religious and not) often spontaneously refer to the soul to explain why robots cannot have attributes which they see as uniquely human. This leads to the question of how and why humans have these attributes. The workshop begins with Descartes’ ideas about mind. Students learn that Descartes envisaged that each person has a nonmaterial dynamic core (a mind – or thinking thing) which controls the material body. In the West, Descartes’ notion of mind has intermingled with Christian ideas about soul. There is now a popular view of the soul as a dynamic core which exists quite separately to the rest of the person. In sharp contrast, philosophical reductionism says there is nothing in a person that cannot eventually be explained by physics. To explain why these are not the only positions we also offer Aquinas’ view of the soul as configurational. Students are reminded of the spectrum of disciplines in a previous workshop. If everything about you is created by God then each person has a unique set of affordances and constraints via nature which are integral aspects of the person.

Running robot workshops

Preliminary versions of the workshops have been run and tested in several occasions including:

  • cards-robotJune secondary event at the University of Reading, 21 June 2016: Three workshops run by
    Dr. Martin Coath and Dr. Mehdi Nassaji
  • Windsor Girl’s School, Windsor, 5 July 2016: One workshop run by Prof. Berry Billingsley and Dr. Mehdi Nassaji
  • Brentwood event day at Brentwood Ursuline Catholic Highschool, 7 July 2016: Three workshops run by Dr. Mehdi Nassaji
  • Broughton Hall High School, Liverpool, 18 July 2016, One workshop run by Dr. Mehdi Nassaji

Several schools have asked to be included if the project is funded. A post-evaluation survey was carried out with students who took part in the workshop, ‘Can a robot hear?’ Below is a sample of students’ comments on the ‘can a robot hear?’ workshop content and how their thinking has progressed after the workshop:

  • “This workshop was very fascinating and I feel that I have learnt a lot more about robots and humans. I didn’t know anything about robots before today.”
  • “My thinking progressed well and we thought deeper about robots.”
  • “I can appreciate the difference between hearing and responding and it has developed my ethical views about robots.”
  • “I feel more knowledgeable.”
  • “I was made to think about inter-disciplinary questions and about hard questions.”
  • “My views have completely changed.”hall-question-format
  • “I have questioned the difference between hearing and responding which is particularly significant in terms of understanding of robot.”
  • “It’s got me thinking more about subjects I would really think much about before.”
  • “I have thought deeper into difficult questions.”
  • “It made me think more about the purpose of life and why we are here and how far we can go in technology.”
  • “I understand the difference between hearing and responding to sound.”
  • “In some ways yes, because I have never considered this topic before.”
  • “Yes, I feel as though I have learnt more about the possibilities and functions that robots can have in the future.”
  • “Yes, I understand more about the ability to hear and how robots can be made to respond to sound.”
  • “I have thought more about what it means to be human and living.”
  • “The session has made me consider the idea of what it takes to be considered living and how this contrasts to the abilities of a robot. “


9-sm-Agnes2• A pre-workshop and a post-workshop survey have been designed for this theme to be used in Robot-workshops. So far 157 pre- and post -workshop surveys have been conducted among secondary school students. Sample statements below. Each statement is presented in a Likert Scale (strongly agree to strongly disagree).

  • ‘One day there will be robots that are as intelligent as humans’2-sm-Voting
  • ‘One day there will be a robot that can play the piano’
  • ‘One day there will be a robot that can appreciate music’
  • ‘One day there will be robots that can fall in love’
  • ‘One day there be robots that have minds’
  • ‘One day there will be robots that have a conscience’


BERA Conference 2016 

A paper discussing the first workshop in this series was presented at the BERA annual conference in September 2016. Please find links to the abstract and PowerPoint below.

BERA 2016-robot-abstract

BERA 2016-robot-presentation

Polkinghorne, J. (2009). The metaphysics of divine action. In Philosophy, Science and Divine Action (pp. 97-110). Brill.