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ESL Upper-Intermediate Lesson Plan – Would You Harm a Robot?

Updated on April 30, 2015

Lesson Plan Contents

Robots are only circuits and wires, right? So, would you hurt or kill a robot for a science experiment? What about a really cute one that thinks you are its mother? Explore this thought-provoking ESL lesson plan.

This activity contains a reading section which will act as the basis for the discussion section and an interesting speaking activity at the end where students must create robot laws. Especially popular with adults and teenagers.

Contents:

  • Warm Up
  • Reading
  • Vocabulary match
  • Gap fill
  • Discussion questions
  • Speaking activity
  • Answers for teacher

Time: 60 minutes+

Level: Upper-intermediate or advanced.

ESL Upper-Intermediate Lesson Plan - Would You Harm a Robot?

Source

Warm Up


  • Do you have any attachment to a piece of technology you own? Describe it.

  • If you saw someone beating a child in the street, what would you do?

  • If you saw someone hitting a laptop, what would you think?

Reading – Would You Harm a Robot?


Would you cry if you had to throw out your old toaster? No? What about chucking out your noisy vacuum cleaner then? No feelings of remorse for abandoning these machines? Well, how about social robots like the cute Pleo dinosaur or the child robot? Would it be so easy for you to harm a robot that looks and acts like a baby, a pet or a young child? According to Kate Darling, a researcher at MIT, mistreating some kinds of social robots may become illegal in the future.

Bond with them.

Darling conducted an interesting experiment in Boston with volunteers and some Pleo dinosaur toys. The Pleos are helpless when they come out of the box. They are unable to walk and you have to teach them about the world. The volunteers were encouraged to play and cuddle the toys, but after an hour they were given knives and hatchets and ordered to destroy and dismember the Pleos.

Dismember them with hatchets!

The volunteers, who had bonded quickly with the robots, point-blank refused. Darling tried to pit one against the other by telling them they could save their own dinosaur by killing another, but yet again, they refused. Finally, she threatened to kill all the Pleos unless one dinosaur was sacrificed. One man reluctantly stepped forward and 'murdered' the Pleo with a hatchet and the room went silent for a few seconds.

Similarly, in the university of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, 14 volunteers had their brains scanned by MRI machines and were shown videos of Pleo dinosaurs being cruelly punished in another experiment. When the dinosaurs were treated well, they sang, squealed with delight or purred. However, when they beaten, strangled with a rope, dropped, put in a plastic bag and choked, they cried as though they were suffering. The emotional and physiological responses of the volunteers were much higher than expected, even though they knew the dinosaur was not alive.

Battle Bots

It's not just the cute dinosaur with the big trusting eyes that humans develop attachments to. Soldiers honour their battle bots with medals and give them funerals when they are destroyed. A five feet long mine-defusing robot was built to explode land mines and during the test, every time it found an explosive device, it lost a limb. When it was down to its last leg, but still crawling around, the colonel called off the exercise on the grounds that it was 'inhumane' to have the burned, scarred and crippled robot do its job.

Robot Laws

Darling suggests we may need to think about developing a set of robot rights. She argues that we do have a precedent from animal rights laws, which were enacted to protect animals from unnecessary cruelty. She noted that some states even investigate child abuse when there are reports of animal cruelty in a home because they suspect the two are related. Likewise, robot abuse could be an indicator of the darker sides of society. She gives an example of a father torturing a robot in front of his 4-year-old child. This act shows that in some instances it is acceptable to be cruel. And think about some segments of our society, like children or the elderly, who may not be able to differentiate between live and lifelike. If robots are being harmed and humans have bonded with them, would this be considered abuse?

What's all the fuss about?

Discussion Questions


  1. Would you have harmed the dinosaur if you had taken part in the experiment? At what stage?

  2. If one of your colleagues had tortured the Pleo without any second thoughts, would that make him/her a bad person?

  3. Name some reasons why soldiers may become so attached to robots?

  4. Are you attached to any inanimate objects?

  5. Do you think that people who are cruel to animals could also be cruel to fellow humans?

  6. Many people are happy to eat chickens that are kept in disgusting conditions, but would be very upset if a cat or a dog was mistreated. Why is one form of cruelty more acceptable?

  7. What do you think about developing a set of robot rights?

  8. What about the last question: “If robots are being harmed and humans have bonded with them, would this be considered abuse?”

  9. How would you react to a robot that cried in pain, begged for mercy, asked for your help or asked to be your friend?

  10. The philosopher Thomas Metzinger said that “We should refrain from doing anything to increase the overall amount of suffering in the universe.” Since some scientists are already developing robots that “feel” pain. What do you think about this above statement?



Vocabulary Match - Phrases

 
 
chucking out
Something that is alive compared to something that looks alive.
point-blank refused
Throw something/someone out.
to pit one against the other
Ready to collapse, break or die from exhaustion.
squealed with delight
A high-pitched cry of delight.
down to its last leg
Refusal without explanation or qualification.
live and lifelike
To set someone in competition against another.
Match the phrases to the definitions.

Vocabulary Match - Words

 
 
remorse
Unable to walk properly.
harm
Squeeze the neck of someone to cause death.
mistreating
The noise a cat makes when it is content.
hatchets
The way a baby or an insect moves.
dismember
Unable to breathe because of an obstruction in the airways.
purred
Cut the limbs off an animal or person.
strangled
To treat badly.
choked
A mark left on the skin from an injury.
limb
A small axe.
crawling
To hurt deliberately.
crippled
An arm or a leg of a human or animal.
scarred
Feelings of regret for having done something.
Match the words to the definitions.

Gap Fill


Using the words and phrases from the vocabulary section, fill in the gaps and use the correct form.


  1. Her skin is terribly _________ from the fire in her home 5 years ago.

  2. I didn't mean to cause you any ___________.

  3. Margaret __________ on a piece of meat. Her face went blue and then mum hit her on the back and it came out.

  4. Jim was about 8 months old when he learned to __________.

  5. My computer is ________________. I've had it for 15 years now, but it takes so long to start and it's full of viruses. I'm going to have to throw it away.

  6. The actress refused ___________ to give an interview about her drug addiction.

  7. He was ______________ of the nightclub by the bouncers for making a scene.

  8. The serial killer felt no ___________ for his victims.

  9. The cat ____________ and rubbed against my leg.

  10. The civil war _________ one family ___________.

Take Me To Your Leader

Source

Speaking Activity - Group Work


Devise a set of robot laws with your group. These points might give you some ideas:


  • Decide which robots should be protected by the laws.

  • Discuss labour laws.

  • Give examples of what robot abuse is.

  • Define what a robot should or should not do.

  • Look at punishments for robots and humans who break the law.



More lesson plans by the author

Discover whether there are any downsides to being super rich with this lesson plan.

These activities are especially good for encouraging natural conversation among the upper-intermediate and advanced levels. ESL Lesson Plan – Does Being Rich Make you Miserable? (Advanced)

ESL Lesson Plan Answers

Answers – Words and phrases

  • chucking out - Throw something/someone out.
  • point-blank refused - Refusal without explanation or qualification.
  • to pit one against the other - To set someone in competition against another.
  • squealed with delight - A high-pitched cry of delight.
  • down to its last leg - Ready to collapse, break or die from exhaustion.
  • live and lifelike - Something that is alive compared to something that looks alive.


  • Unable to walk properly - crippled
  • Squeeze the neck of someone to cause death -strangled
  • The noise a cat makes when it is content - purred
  • The way a baby or an insect moves - crawling
  • Unable to breathe because of an obstruction in the airways - choked
  • Cut the limbs off an animal or person - dismember
  • To treat badly- mistreating
  • A mark left on the skin from an injury - scarred
  • A small axe - hatchets
  • To hurt deliberately -harm
  • An arm or a leg of a human or animal - limb
  • Feelings of regret for having done something - remorse


Answers Gap Fill


  1. scarred

  2. harm

  3. was choking

  4. crawl

  5. down to its last legs

  6. point-blank

  7. chucked out

  8. remorse

  9. purred

  10. pitted one family against the other.


Credited sources:

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20131127-would-you-murder-a-robot and http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2013/11/19/kate-darling-on-robot-ethics/

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    • Muttface profile image
      Author

      Muttface 2 years ago from Portugal

      It's a very interesting hub, I've just finished reading it. I think I would turn off the catbot much more easily than Mr Data though!

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      My contention is that no "torture" is involved in disassembling a machine. When I power down my computer and remove its hard disk, for example, have I hurt it? Of course not. Yet that computer is capable of simulating human responses on some level. That's all any AI app will ever do. I fully expect to eventually see programs that pass the Turing Test such that humans can't distinguish its responses from those of a real person. But it's still nothing more than a machine.

      Star Trek’s Mr. Data is a good example. Because of its highly advanced AI programming, crew members dealt with it as if it were human. And from the outside, it wasn’t possible to tell the difference (in other words, it passed the Turing Test). But it was ultimately not human, and not even alive.

      If you don’t mind a bit of self-promotion, I talk about this in my hub “Why Morality Requires Faith In God,” which, BTW, also reports on an experiment in which people were asked to “kill” a robot as it begged them not to.

    • Muttface profile image
      Author

      Muttface 2 years ago from Portugal

      Thanks for reading RonElFran! Yes, it's going to be a strange new world in 50 years' time. There is already mention (in the credited sources above) of robots that have rudimentary feelings and awareness.

      I take it you would not have tortured the Pleo then?

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      IMO robots can't have "rights" any more than a bicycle has. But the idea that mistreating a humanoid robot may lead some people to mistreat humans is one we have to take seriously.