Recently I’ve been developing a robotics curriculum that challenges children to think critically about the role of technology in their world. In one of the introductory activities we piloted this summer at the Center for Talent Development, third grade students were given a rubber robot toy and asked, “Is this a robot?” Most of the children said, “No.”

“No, because it’s rubber and not electrical.”

“No, it doesn’t have a motor.”

“No, because it doesn’t have any controls or sound waves or radio waves.”

“No, it’s not a robot because it was not programmed to do a specific thing such as serving food.”

These comments reveal that most of the students had some understanding that a robot needs a power source and that it is controlled or programmed using code. By the time the summer robotics course was over, they had an even more detailed and layered understanding of what the word “robot” can mean.

Recently I, too, have been challenged to think more deeply and critically about technology. I’ve been reading John Markoff’s interesting book Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground between Humans and Robots. After reading just a few pages of this book I realized that I didn’t have a very detailed or layered understanding of what the term “artificial intelligence” means. I’m starting to understand that AI involves systems that are able to perceive their environment and then take action or respond in some way — that AI systems are active, not passive.

Markoff writes about the ways that computer scientists are grappling with questions about “the deepening relationship between human and machine.” I think this is a conversation that children can and should join.

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