It sounds like science fiction: robots begin replacing humans not only in environments like manufacturing lines, coal mines, and other hazardous places, but also in the classroom. The days when the “robot” in front of your classroom isn’t dry, boring, and monotone voice of a very human professor but an actual machine may not be as far away as you think: Researchers at La Trobe and Kyoto Universities are collaborating to develop robots that can read and interpret behavioral clues of humans.

 

As a long-time fan of science fiction, from original “StarTrek” and “Battlestar Galactica” television series of my childhood to the modern day-remakes and “prequels” of both (e.g., the most recent “Star Trek” movie and the new SyFy channel series “Caprica”), I have to acknowledge that things that once seemed only possible in the annals of science fiction are becoming real life. As I sit writing this article on a palm-sized computer smaller than those envisioned in 60s science fiction books and television shows, I have to admit that it will soon be possible to experience robotics that can “understand us.”

 

As strange as it may seem today, tomorrow may hold in store for us robots that have a greater chance of understanding the different thought processes, emotions, and behavioral signals than the human male or female will have for their counterpart. Men will still be from Mars and women from Venus when the androgynous robot in the front of the classroom is educating both sexes.

 

While I don’t foresee the invasion of the robot into the classroom as life threatening, I do have to wonder at what point will humanity look to “cybernetic lifeform operating nodes” or “Cylons” to escape from dealing with the foibles of humanity. As we distance ourselves from all that makes us human and depend more and more on technology, I have to wonder will there come a day when humanity will be passé? Will we be devalued and displaced by the technology we create?

 

Will we some day—through our inventions and drive to do things “because we can”—wake up in a brave new world where machines rule? Will there be a time when the challenge of living comes not from overcoming being overworked but overcoming the idle produced our own inventions? What happens when the value of our life and the challenges and motivations of living are replaced with boredom, and the only place we humans will have is our ability to dream of better times, better places, and ways to hold onto what makes us irreplaceable … our very humanity?

 

In the final frontier of life, it will not be space or environment that destroys us, but the products of our own dreams, dissatisfaction and complacency in our belief that we stand indomitably, unchallenged at the top of the food chain. I think, therefore I am … but when I cease to think of consequences and impact of my innovations and use of technology then I am vulnerable to the use and advancement of technology at the cost of humanity.

 

I understand the search for technology as answer for removing people from dangerous jobs like coal mining. I understand the intellectual pursuit of innovation and wondering if something can be done. However, I fear that the value of human achievement and motivation, and the ability and drive to accomplish something will be victim to the robot in the classroom. We do because we can, and when we remove the human element (however err prone) from the human equation, are we making progress? Or are we looking for something and seeking to be the creator of life, when even God has left our own ability to be “perfect” not to programming but to our own free will?

 

Author: Lea A. Strickland, MBA CMA CFM CBM GMC

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