Can we programme a robot to have good taste?

During an online Philosophy Club for 7-11 year olds – where we were discussing if robot teachers are a good idea – one young participant asked Can we programme a robot to have good taste?

This question really struck me as it is a subject that I am currently grappling with for my research…what is success in life and who decides?

The young philosopher was using her question to highlight the problems that a robot teacher might face when giving feedback on a piece of work and deciding if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Others in the group then pursued many of the avenues that you may imagine – asking – What is a good picture? What if it was scribbly but the child was really young or had tried really hard? What about if it was a really abstract picture, how could the robot think that was good? Is this fair?

One way round this, suggested by the initial questioner, is that the robot learns the rules of the curriculum – it is either right or wrong….

When reflecting on the session I found myself asking – what is a teacher doing that a robot can’t? when we exercise our judgement on a piece of work can we ever be completely fair. Schubert (2014) explains this quandary through his writing about Bourdieu’s definition of symbolic violence ‘ Taste would seem to be a personal quality but it is actually social…Each time a member of society expresses a preferencethey are expressing , however unwittingly, the predispositions of the structured structure that is habitus.‘ We express a preference through the filter of everything that we have experienced so far in life.

Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier, social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classification is expressed or betrayed.

Bourdieu, 1979

This leads me to ask what teaching and learning is really about? is it about recognising when children are able to reproduce established and ‘proven to be correct’ types of art, maths answers, stories and facts about the world or is it something else? What about social interactions – can we only recognise one way or are their many? What does this say about diversity in education and in society?

Perhaps most importantly for me, how then can we enable children to say or contribute something new to society? Do we need to remember the perennial line…if we always do what we’ve always done, then we will always have what we’ve already got. Personally, I think that we really do need some new thinking if we are to move on as a society, build greater resilience so that we can thrive and not just survive in our increasingly uncertain future.

The final thought has to come from a child ‘I think that if we allow robots to do too much for us then we will forget our skills and eventually we will forget how to be human.’

Is the purpose of education to help us to be human?

What do you think?

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