It's 6 a.m. in Los Angeles, but I have a fresh pot of coffee beside me, and I'm ready for class to begin.
Class, in this case, is being conducted through my computer. I'm enrolled in a massive open online course (MOOC) through FutureLearn, and for the past three weeks, my Philosophy of Technology and Design class has studied the challenges (and opportunities) between humans and our emerging silicon cousins (robots, automated transportation, and other things as yet uninvented).
Our professor, Dr. Peter-Paul Verbeek, is from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, while my classmates include AI researchers, industrial engineers from Indonesia, a civil engineer from South Korea, system designer from India, quite a few educators from Western Europe, and at least nine PhDs from Denmark, Italy, UK, and the US.
We're not alone. According to stats from Class Central, at least 23 million people registered for a MOOC for the first time in 2016; overall, 58 million students at 700+ universities took 6,850 online courses worldwide last year.
A Crash Course in 'PhilTech'
In my Philosophy of Technology class, we started with a primer in—new jargon alert!—PhilTech concepts, from the "classical" approaches of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers up to the current instrumentalism view, where tech is an instrument of human desires and goals, versus determinism (tech evolution changes society itself).
Then we looked at tech devices, specifically robots, as "mediating" between us and the world, particularly when used in teaching and health care as assistants. These so-called social robots are designed to recognize and interpret human behavior, then respond appropriately.
One example the professor provided was a security robot in a shopping mall that needs to know whether people are inciting a riot or merely dancing merrily in a flash mob. Most human-robot interaction designers do this by embedding socio-emotive A.I. (like Affectiva) so robots can examine facial cues. So beware if you're glowering to goth music, as robots could misinterpret your dance moves as nefarious activity.
Week three focused on ethics, morals, and behavior-influencing technology. Are there ethics in things? The short answer, our professor explained, is no. Things don't possess intent; only humans do. But, Dr. Verbeek continued, technologies can be seen as moral agents.
"Ethical actions and decisions are not taken in a vacuum, but within a context in which technologies inevitably play a role. Technologies mediate ethics, mediate morality," he said. "They inform our ethical choices, our ethical behavior and therefore, we need to deal with mediations in a responsible way, when we use design or implement technologies."
Dr. Verbeek then asked, "So, can we design moral technologies?"—a concept which, I admit, I'd never really considered.
"In the same way that automatic turnstiles are designed to prevent people from entering the metro without a ticket, technologies can be designed that stimulate environmentally friendly behavior and discourage environmentally unfriendly behaviour, such as speed limiters in automobiles or water-saving showerheads," Dr. Verbeek said
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If you're curious, here's a TedX speech he gave on this:
A MOOC Convert?
So, having finished the three week MOOC, how did I fare?
It was certainly different to my student days at the University of London many (many) years ago. The MOOC had an appealingly clean UI, and it was simple to navigate through the various tasks; a progress bar let you know where you were in the allotted steps.
I enjoyed being able to watch videos, read the transcript, go to discussions to review what my fellow students thought, complete textual responses to the professor's questions (without fighting for attention in a lecture hall or sitting through a boring response from the teacher's pet), and then mark as complete—all from the comforts of my Life/Work space in Los Angeles.
I didn't pay to be "graded," though. For how I currently earn my living, I don't feel I need any more qualifications. But I'm open to the idea, and that is part of the FutureLearn business model, after all.
Of course participating in a MOOC is a great way for educational establishments to source bright international students. Professor Verbeek has open enrollment to his Master's program—Philosophy of Science Technology and Society—and, judging from the conversation in the threaded discussions after each week's assignments, at least some of my fellow students are considering it.
In an email, Dr. Verbeek said he sees the MOOC as an ideal new way to bring the latest academic insights to those outside a traditional college campus.
"For me, offering a MOOC on our current work is an important way to connect academia and society. I regard it as our social responsibility to bring philosophical insights to social contexts where they can be helpful and meaningful," he said. "It's very inspiring to me that people with so many different backgrounds participated in the MOOC. I really hope that it gave them refreshing new views and insights, and helps them to think more critically and perhaps even responsibly about technology in their daily life and work."
The best aspect, for me, was access to truly interesting thinkers—over 5,600 miles away—and taking the time to ponder subjects that intrigue me, without committing to expensive travel. Through the MOOC, I obtained a clearer understanding of the design issues inherent in human-robot interaction, and know it will inform my future reporting for PCMag on this emerging field.
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