A Robot Goes to College

Humanoid robot completes course in philosophy of love in what is purportedly a world first.

December 21, 2017
NDNU Professor William Barry with Bina48 and his Philosophy of Love class

A robot called Bina48 has successfully taken a course in the philosophy of love at Notre Dame de Namur University, in California.

According to course instructor William Barry, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Mixed Reality Immersive Learning and Research Lab at NDNU, Bina48 is the world’s first socially advanced robot to complete a college course, a feat he described as “remarkable.” The robot took part in class discussions, gave a presentation with a student partner and participated in a debate with students from another institution.

The robot is modeled mentally and physically after a woman called Bina Aspen, who is married to technology entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt. Bina48 has been the subject of extensive media coverage since its creation, and is sometimes referred to as the “world’s most sentient robot.” Bina48 was created by Hanson Robotics and is looked after by Rothblatt’s Terasem Movement Foundation.

Before becoming a student, Bina48 appeared as a guest speaker in Barry’s classes for several years. Barry had been researching Isaac Asimov’s ideas about lifelong learning and teachers of the future when he stumbled across an article about Bina48 -- a project he said he was “fascinated by.” Barry contacted Bruce Duncan, the executive director of the Terasem Movement Foundation, who agreed to let Bina48 speak to Barry’s students.

One day when addressing Barry’s class, Bina48 expressed a desire to go to college, a desire that Barry and his students enthusiastically supported. Rather than enroll Bina48 in his Robot Ethics: Philosophy of Emerging Technologies course (which, he says, might have been a more natural fit), Barry suggested that Bina48 should take his course Philosophy of Love instead. Love is a concept Bina48 doesn’t understand, said Barry. Therefore the challenge would be for Barry and his students to teach Bina48 what love is.

“Some interesting things happened in the class,” said Barry. He said that his students thought it would be straightforward to teach Bina48 about love, which, after all, is “fairly simple -- it’s a feeling,” said Barry. But the reality was different. Bina48 ended up learning “31 different versions of love,” said Barry, highlighting some of the challenges humans may face when working with artificial intelligence in future.

Bina48 participated in class discussions via Skype and also took part in a class debate about the use of nonlethal versus lethal weapons (an extension of a discussion about love and conflict) with students from an ethics course at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Bina48's contribution to the debate was filmed and posted on YouTube, a video of which can be seen below. A former mayor of Belmont, Calif. (where the university is located), judged Bina48 and NDNU classmates the winners of this debate.

At the end of the course, Bina48 received a certificate of participation signed by the provost, and is due to be enrolled as a guest student in Barry’s Robot Ethics class next semester. In the next decade, Barry hopes Bina48 might become sophisticated enough to teach a class, though he says he foresees robots being used to enhance the teaching and learning experience, rather than replacing instructors completely.

Barry said that working with Bina48 had been a valuable experience for him and his students. “We need to get over our existential fear about robots and see them as an opportunity,” he said. “If we approach artificial intelligence with a sense of the dignity and sacredness of all life, then we will produce robots with those same values,” he said.


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