Academics, Middle School

The Ethics of Robots

For two full weeks in March, Northwest Middle School students programmed robots and tackled the ethical dilemmas of automation and human interaction in the Robots and Ethics Summit.

“You can program robots to spin around or you can program robots to diagnose healthy cells versus sick cells in the human body,” said Michela W. ‘24, who mentioned the Summit was her first foray into programming. “This Summit has definitely piqued my interest in how much you can accomplish with robots.”

The course, which was part of the school’s Summits program, was taught by math teacher Sarah Eklund and Humanities teacher Erikk Hood. They challenged groups of students to build and program robots via Lego Mindstorms to accomplish a variety of tasks. Concurrently, students studied the ethical dilemmas of robots and explored Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics.

“In this age of automation, it is important to have discussions about ethics and how future laws will govern robots, taking into account artificial intelligence and how humanity teaches robots to perform,” says Erikk. “We had great conversations with the students about the ethical quandaries robots bring, including the so-called trolley issue, that hopefully will help our students think about the ramifications of robotics and automation.”

In the second week, students programmed their robots to simulate cleaning up a patch of the ocean. Some robots picked up model pylons and moved them to shore, while other robots grabbed a net and collected trash.

Burak Y. '24, who has experience with LEGO robotics, said he was intrigued the group discussion on the ethical dilemmas facing robotics and automation.

“When you talk about ethical dilemmas it seems a little far in the future, but in reality, it isn’t,” says Burak. “Companies are already working on self-driving cars. In an accident, those cars will either be programmed to protect the driver or cause the least amount of damage as possible. Who determines what is the right thing to do? It has been really interesting to talk about these dilemmas.”