Offered in 2017


Robots and Machine Intelligences (55+)

What are the political and ethical dimensions of incorporating nonhuman intelligences into our social and economic life? How have human societies already been influenced and transformed by machine technologies? What are the possible future consequences of our burgeoning use of machine or artificial intelligence (AI) and sentient robots?

We will begin with an overview of the current state of robotics and AIs in three areas of life: the military, caregiving for children and the elderly, and sex work. We will then dig deeper to engage with the moral, political and economic concerns raised by robotic and machine intelligences.

Note: Back by popular demand, from summer 2017.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week One: Where Are We Now? Machine 'Intelligences’ in Everyday Life

While the presence and use of intelligent or sentient machines remains largely unrealized in current societies, there has been a dramatic transformation in the human/machine relationship. This week we explore the research regarding machine-human interactions, focusing especially on new technologies like smart devices.

Week Two: Help! A Machine Stole My Job!

19th century writers like Marx foretold a society of ease and leisure emerging as machine technologies evolved to replace human manual labour for the most dangerous and taxing jobs. This week we explore these prognostications and contrast them with contemporary fears about the structural unemployment that is expected to result from the prospective shift to intelligent machines in a variety of professions including education, law and medicine.

Week Three: Case Study: The Military

The military is an early adopter of so-called ‘smart machines’. This week we will look at the long-standing military interest in developing machine intelligences capable of waging war. This story begins with smart weapons like guided missiles and bombs, and proceeds to discuss the use of drones and other unmanned devices. We will conclude this week with a look toward the technologies under development, including robotic ‘warriors’ capable of limited decision-making in combat situations.

Week Four: Case Study: Care-taking

It is perhaps indicative both of the persistently low status and pay awarded to the areas of life traditionally assigned to women, and of the predispositions of researchers and investors, that care-taking is a major area of research in robotics. This week we examine efforts to replace or supplement human care-taking with robots for both young children and the elderly, especially elderly adults afflicted with dementia and related diseases of aging.

Week Five: The *Other * Sexual Revolution

Alongside the military, sex work is an area of life in which robots are under enthusiastic development. This week we explore the current state of robots and machine intelligences in sex work, including the phenomenon of 'Real Dolls' and efforts to create robots life-like enough to use in sexual encounters.  Moral and ethical issues abound.

Week Six: Whither the Future?

This week we explore the ethical and political implications of the creation of machine intelligences.  We will discuss the legal status of ‘non-human persons’ and consider to what degree machine intelligences will fit this definition.  We will also begin to extrapolate the consequences of incorporating intelligent machines into our societies by looking at the ways in which human societies have already been influenced and transformed by machine technologies.

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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