“Robots: They are like us, but unlike us, and both fearsome and easy to bully.” J. Bromwich, The New York Times
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
“A hitchhiking robot was beheaded in Philadelphia. A security robot was punched to the ground in Silicon Valley. Another security bot, in San Francisco, was covered in a tarp and smeared with barbecue sauce.
Why do people lash out at robots, particularly those that are built to resemble humans? It’s a global phenomenon. In a mall in Osaka, Japan, three boys beat a humanoid robot with all their strength. In Moscow, a man attacked a teaching robot named Alantim with a baseball bat, kicking it to the ground, while the robot pleaded for help.
Why do we act this way? Are we secretly terrified that robots will take our jobs? Upend our societies? Control our every move with their ever-expanding capabilities and air of quiet malice?
Quite possibly. The specter of insurrection is embedded in the word ‘robot’ itself. It was first used to refer to automatons by the Czech playwright, Karel Capek, who repurposed a word that had referred to a system of indentured servitude or serfdom. The feudal fear of peasant revolt was transplanted to mechanical servants, and worries of a robot uprising have lingered ever since.
The comedian Aristotle Georgeson has found that videos of people physically aggressing robots are among the most popular he posts on Instagram under the pseudonym Blake Webber. And much of the feedback he gets tends to reflect the fear of robot uprisings.
Mr. Georgeson said that some commenters approve of the robot beatings, ‘saying we should be doing this so they can never rise up. But there’s this whole other group that says we shouldn’t be doing this because when they’ — the robots — ‘see these videos they’re going to be pissed.’
Paradoxically, our tendency to dehumanize robots comes from the instinct to anthropomorphize them. William Santana Li, the chief executive of Knightscope, the largest provider of security robots in the United States (two of which were battered in San Francisco), said that while he avoids treating his products as if they were sentient beings, his clients seem unable to help themselves. ‘Our clients, a significant majority, end up naming the machines themselves,’ he said. ‘There’s Holmes and Watson, there’s Rosie, there’s Steve, there’s CB2, there’s CX3PO.’
In his paper “Who is afraid of the humanoid?” Frédéric Kaplan, the digital humanities chair at École Polytechnique…suggested that Westerners have been taught to see themselves as biologically informed machines — and perhaps, are unable to separate the idea of humanity from a vision of machines… This doesn’t explain human destruction of less humanoid machines. Dozens of vigilantes have thrown rocks at driverless cars in Arizona, for example, and incident reports from San Francisco suggest that human drivers are intentionally crashing into driverless cars.
These robot altercations may have more to do with fear of unemployment, or with vengeance: A paper published last year by economists at M.I.T. and Boston University suggested that each robot that is added to a discreet zone of economic activity ‘reduces employment by about six workers.’Blue-collar occupations were particularly hit hard. ‘The easiest thing for us to do is when we go to a new place, the first day, before we even unload the machine, is a town hall, a lunch-and-learn,’ Mr. Li said.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the KWL chart to list the information they already know about humans abusing robots. Later in the Post- Reading segment of the lesson, students can fill in what they’ve learned about the topic.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- A hitchhiking robot was beheaded in Philadelphia.
- A security robot was punched to the ground.
- It’s a global phenomenon.
- In a mall in Osaka, Japan, three boys beat a humanoid robot.
- Are we secretly terrified that robots will take our jobs?
- The specter of insurrection is embedded in the word robot itself.
- It was first used to refer to automatons by the Czech playwright, Karel Capek.
- The fear of peasant revolt was transplanted to mechanical servants.
- Our tendency to dehumanize robots comes from the instinct to anthropomorphize them.
- Santana Li avoids treating his products as if they were sentient beings.
Grammar: Identifying English Articles
Directions: Have students choose the correct English articles (THE, A, AN)to fill in the blanks.
___nervous system could only be understood after___discovery of electricity, he wrote. DNA is necessarily explained as___analog to computer code. And___human heart is often understood as___mechanical pump. At every turn, Mr. Kaplan wrote, “we see ourselves in ___mirror of ___machines that we can build.”
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
Abuse of___robots can be ___and expensive, but there may be a solution…kids have this ___of being very brutal to the robot, they would kick the robot. That went on until the___started giving names to the robots. So the robots suddenly were not just___but Andy, Joe and Sally. At that moment, the___behavior stopped.
WORD LIST: disturbing, robots, brutal, humanoid, caregiver, tendency,
III. Post Reading Activities
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.
- When you see a robot do you experience the anger described in the article?
- Have you ever abused a robot?
- The article provides several reasons for robot abuse by humans. Do you agree with all of them?
- Do you have other reasons for this type of abuse?
- In the article Santana Li states, “ “Come meet the robot, have some cake, some naming contest and have a rational conversation about what the machine does and doesn’t do. And after you do that, all is good. 100 percent.” In your opinion, is this a good idea? Explain why or why not.
Extra Activities: Using Movie Trailers for Learning
Trailer for 2011 film ‘Real Steel’ : The film is based on the short story “Steel”, written by Richard Matheson, which was originally published in the May 1956 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and later adapted into a 1963 ‘Twilight Zone’ episode.
Directions: Before viewing trailer review any new vocabulary from the trailer with students. Then have students answer the questions below.
Genre (Drama, Suspense, Thriller, Comedy, Horror, Love story)
Rating (R, PG, PG-13)
Pre-Viewing Discussion Questions
- What movies (or trailers) have you seen recently in the theater?
- What kinds of things do you consider when they go to the movies (e.g.,the stars, who directs it, the plot, etc.).
While/After Viewing Movie Trailer Questions
- Who are the actors and actresses in this movie? Who is the director?
- What Genre is this movie? (Drama, Suspense, Thriller, Comedy, Horror, Love story)
- What rating would you give this film based on the trailer? (PG, PG-13, R)
- What (if anything) was attractive about the trailer to you? In other words, what did you like or dislike about the trailer?
- Outline the story or plot of the movie or describe what you understood from the scenes.
- How does this trailer relate to the article you’ve just read?
- Based on the trailer would you recommend this movie to your friends? Give reasons for your answers.
Create a movie trailer using role-plays or draw a movie poster for the movie trailer you just saw. Share your role-plays or posters with the class when finished.
Directions: Write down three new ideas you’ve learned about the topic from the reading, two things you did not understand in the reading, and one thing that you would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.