This is such a brilliant and timely little novel. It touches on so many important ethical questions about AI/robots: care robots, AI replacing jobs, robots/AI as human-like species deserving rights versus being like appliances, philosophy of mind, and more. I’m excited to talk to my students at Olin about this book. It’s our summer reading for incoming first years.
Ishiguro’s “Klara” is an artificial friend (AF). She is a care robot (like the many, notably from Japan, that are developed to be companions to humans and help them with social-emotional health). Her objective is to ensure the child she is acquired for is not lonely. She believes the worst thing a human can be is lonely. Her child Josie is a little sick and lives far away from others. The novel covers Klara’s efforts to serve Josie well.
The novel starts in the store where Klara is for sale. She is our narrator. When we meet her, she is starting to form assumptions about the world. Her observational skills are unusually good for an AF, but her narrative is of course flawed both because of the limits of her technology (cleverly illustrated by Ishiguro) and the limits of her experience.
Ishiguro is not the first to offer a first person perspective to an AI. Many fine examples, especially the Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy beginning with Ancillary Justice, come to mind. What I love about Klara and the Sun is that it’s a bildungsroman—one of my favorite genres—for a young robot. This allows us to explore some of the key ethical questions from a unique perspective and provides for the eponymous plot line written stylistically as a fusion of science fiction and realism.
The book is a fast read, filled with clever imagery and symbolism, which open and close the narrative elegantly. I would read this even if I didn’t have to, and I recommend that you do too.
Undergraduate engineering education is not doing enough to address engineering’s culture of disengagement—a culture that inhibits modern society’s ability to serve the public interest and mitigate the threat of technologies amplifying harm. We argue for visions of undergraduate engineering that purposefully embrace the humanities and make civic education integral in order to educate engineers as civic professionals. Two case studies from our college, one curricular and one extracurricular, illustrate how we are building toward a new vision by offering learning experiences in which students can evolve their personal and professional commitments to the common good and practice technical skills in ways responsible to democracy and society.
S. Chowdhary, S. Daitzman, R. Eisenbud, E. Pan and E. Graeff, “Care and Liberation in Creating a Student-Led Public Interest Technology Clinic,” in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 50-52, Sept. 2021, doi: 10.1109/MTS.2021.3101915.
Engineers disengage from public welfare concerns during undergraduate engineering education . In her widely cited study, Erin Cech argued that this arises from a culture of depoliticization in engineering that dismisses “nontechnical” concerns and competencies, reifying a false technical/social dichotomy and meritocratic ideology that justifies existing social structures. Our college, Olin College of Engineering, was part of that study, displaying similar patterns to more traditional schools. We are resisting that trend by embracing “public interest technology” (PIT) , which we believe offers a response to the culture of disengagement. In our application, PIT represents a community of practice that encourages engineers to fully engage with context, inequity, and uncertainty; to connect technical work to their own lives and environment; and to prioritize the common good while minimizing public harms.
S. Chowdhary, S. Daitzman, R. Eisenbud, E. Pan and E. Graeff, “Care and Liberation in Creating a Student-Led Public Interest Technology Clinic,” 2020 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS), 2020, pp. 164-175, doi: 10.1109/ISTAS50296.2020.9462188.
The emerging field of Public Interest Technology contains the seeds for an engineering practice that embodies the ethic of care and undergraduate engineering educational experiences in the mold of liberatory education. We realized these opportunities by creating an undergraduate, student-led public interest technology clinic. Using autoethnography, we reflect on our effort to create the clinic and find that we prioritized emotions and relationships, embraced slowness and deliberation, and claimed student ownership. These practices define public interest technology and redefine engineering in ways centering care and equity, which enabled us to create the inclusive and effective engineering and public interest technology educational experiences we wanted for ourselves.